Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year

A few days I was delighted to learn that I have had an image commended in the 2nd Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year 2015 (SLPOTY), curated by Stuart Low. The image in question was ‘Torridon: The Valley of the Lost’ which I took in 2012.

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The image was taken atop Beinn Eighe and depicts a late season snow shower peppering Beinn Dearg and Beinn Alligin and the vast empty space that is Sheildaig Forest on the right.

I’m particularly pleased that this image has been recognised as it was something of a breakout image for me. It spawned a series of images that I put out on social media that helped establish my reputation as a Mountain Photographer, which culminated last year in the release of my first book Mountainscape. This image doesn’t feature in the book, but another image of Beinn Eighe that was shortlisted in the competition that sadly didn’t get any further does (below).

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Anyway, the image that was commended will feature in the upcoming SLPOTY book and will also feature in exhibitions of SLPOTY over the next year.

It was particularly heartwarming to see that many photographers that I follow and respect have also been rewarded with commendations and category wins, amongst them;

Jason Baxter,

Camillo Berenos,

Scott Robertson,

Alex Nail,

Ian Mountford,

Esen Tunar,

Neil Barr,

Chris Swan,

Daniel Hannabuss,

Mike Prince,

Pete Hyde,

Damian Shields,

Jon Gibbs,

Brian Kerr,

Dave Queenan,

Damian Taylor,

Anita Nicholson,

Lizzie Shepherd,

Verity Milligan,

Adam Fowler,

Andy Gray,

Gareth Paxton, and,

David Breen.

A very hearty congratulations to you all.

Viewing the Change – 2015 Review Part 2

See what I did there? Probably not.

2015, wow, a pretty amazing year. Thanks for all the feedback on Part 1 of this particular blog. It’s really hard choosing images to go into a top 10 and after they were published I was reminded about a fair few more images too, It doesn’t seem fair that you can’t reward everyone, even if it is just a mention in a blog hardly anyone will read, but that doesn’t make the process any less hard.

I suppose it must be a lot like judging competitions in a way, although in this case I was relying more on memory rather than having shortlisted images laid out in front of me. It’s a rather fine analogy to make given the year I’ve had. So, rather than mew on about things, let’s just do a shakedown of the photographic highlights:

  1. Won Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2014 in February.
  2. Got a book deal and released ‘Mountainscape‘.
  3. Was shortlisted in Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
  4. Was shortlisted in Travel Photographer of the Year.
  5. Am shortlisted in Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year.
  6. Won  ‘Live the Adventure’ in Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2015.
  7. Had published articles in What Digital Camera, Amateur Photographer and Outdoor Photography magazines.
  8. Given the front cover of Outdoor Photography magazine (OP200).
  9. Gave first talks at Patchings Art Festival alongside Paul Sanders, Pete Bridgwood, Russ Barnes and others.
  10. Came 4th in the Mountain Photo of the Year.
  11. Had my OPOTY winning image displayed at The Photography Show at the NEC on the Fujifilm stand.
  12. Was made a Fuji X-Photographer.
  13. Successfully ran my first workshop in November.
  14. Exhibited at the Mall Galleries in London.

Oh, and I should mention…

15. 8th in this Buzzfeed list of 33 Horrific Middle-Class Problems…ahem

All in all, I’d say that was a pretty successful year I think, incredible even. Especially given where I was at this time last year. I was just emerging from the photographic equivalent of the Doldrums having spent the previous 4 or 5 months really struggling to see where I was going with my photography. A simple edit of a single image and a last minute entry into OPOTY changed all that. It seems I was swept out of the Doldrums and straight into the Roaring Forties.

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Iceland: End of Time (Winning image of OPOTY 14)

Being told I had first won the category ‘Light of the Land’, which made me eligible for the top prize in OPOTY, really catapulted me into 2015 and gave me the motivation to get out and about into the hills for winter. That all resulted in a haul of imagery over the next six months that I hadn’t achieved before, success breeds success. My attitude changed and so did my point of view.

I see a lot of posts online from people who have ‘given up’ on competitions, “they are not for me” they say, and I respect their opinion on the matter. It’s clearly true that the styles and subject matter of some folk, however ‘arty’ or ‘cutting-edge’ they may be, simply don’t fit into the competition circuit. It can take time to recognise that of course and eventually they do and they move on and find their own path. Unfortunately many do not go silently into that good night and often such declarations are followed up by some bitter expression or derision of the competition and thus by default those who choose to enter them. What these people seem to forget of course is that we all have a passion for this pursuit, for photography, and in this day and age, when virtually everyone on the planet it seems has a camera on their smartphone, that subsequently all of those people are photographers…of sorts. In such a saturated world of imagery, to simply work on one’s little project in the middle of a dark wood in the middle of middle England and in the middle of sea of spectacular imagery from all four corners of the planet, and then to expect anyone other than their mum to take notice…well, it’s just not going to happen. Some folks only want their mum to be proud of them of course, and that is fine, but deriding others for wanting more just isn’t good sport.

Opportunities to get work noticed are few and far between. It tends to boil down to  Social Media (which requires a lot of time and effort), Exhibiting (which requires a lot of time and effort), Magazine submissions (which require a lot of time and effort…hmmm there seem to be a pattern emerging, though one could equally argue Magazines can be fire and forget), and Competitions (quick-fire in essence). It’s little wonder therefore that for emerging talent to get noticed, then of course competitions play a vital role. Now, I’m not saying that the only reason people who have become reasonably successful after winning a major competition have only done so because they won the competition, no of course not. Many were already being recognised through other endeavour, the competition was merely an aid, a single piece in the puzzle. But for me, winning OPOTY was a major step forward.

I’ll continue to enter competitions into 2016, where they intrigue or excite me. I don’t expect to win any, but it won’t stop me trying. I’m also going to start a new project, an extension of Mountainscape, of sorts. I’ve been practicing throughout 2015 and I think I’ve finally narrowed it down to what I want to do. But you’ll have to wait to see it, it’s going to take at least 2 years, if not more.

Anyway, back to 2015, what a year. Below are a small selection of images I captured during the year. I’m not going to call them favourites because I reserve that for myself, but more to help wrap up an incredible year. Thanks to everyone who has provided support and encouragement over the last 12 months, hopefully I can return the favour as we head into a new year.

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Changing the View – 2015 Review Part 1

It’s around this time of year that folks start posting blogs about their favourite images they’ve taken during the year. I find that a little self indulgent but often I am fascinated by what they choose as quite often I don’t agree. It’s funny how we see our images differently to how everyone else sees them and I think this is because of the emotional connection we have with an image which overrides our ability to be critical about it. How often do we see people winning competitions with images they “wouldn’t have chosen” themselves, describing shortlisted entries merely as a “filler to make up the numbers”, and all too often seeming embarrassed by the positive reaction folks have to images or projects that they themselves simply don’t rate that highly…and then getting frustrated when the reaction to their “Masterpiece” amounts to a single Fav on Twitter. For this reason I try not to read too much into these types of blogs and it’s one of the reasons for this Part 1 to the year in review. I’ll talk more about my year (and what a year it has been) in Part 2, but in this part I want to highlight the favourite images I have seen from people I follow online, which is something I’ve done for the last 2 years. Sadly for everybody, Peter Lik doesn’t get a look in. Maybe next year Peter.

Ok, so let’s kick this off, this is in no particular order. I’m not going to sit here an analyse each image because for me at least, it’s often hard to put into words why I like an image. So, let’s just let the images speak for themselves for the most part. It’s possible I’ve missed an image or two, so if you aren’t mentioned, well I’m sure it’s just down to an error on my part 😉

1. Colin Bell – Woodland Tales

This image comes from Colin’s amazing Holme Fell portfolio of images. He posted it in November.

Woodland Tales

2. Alex Nail – Greenland Sunset

Shot during Alex’s three week long endurance hike in Greenland, once again going to great lengths to capture evocative imagery.

Greenland Sunset

3. Camillo Berenos – Still Here!

Buachaille Etive Mor is perhaps Scotland’s most photographed mountain, and for the most part, because of that, wouldn’t normally get a look in in this list…but I was captivated by Camillo’s sequence of images from a single winters morning, so much so, this one sticks in my mind. Not your usual fayre from there.

Still here!

4. Lizzie Shepherd – Zig-Zag

Lizzie won the Living the View category in this years Landscape Photographer of the Year with this wonderful opportunistic image from Wensleydale.

Zigzag, Wenlsleydale - winner of the Living the View category of LPOTY 2015

5. Matthew Dartford – Lenny Medlers Scrapyard

Matt has consistently pushed out great images this year, so much so that he has just won Wex Photographer of the Year. I could have chosen a number of images for this top 10, but this one has stuck in my mind all year.

Lenny Medlers Scrapyard 17/03/15

6. Lee Acaster – Protection

I’m not a sucker for sunrises…

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7. Russ Barnes – In the Shadows

Love this from Russ. It deserved to do well in a few comps in my honest opinion.

In The Shadows

8. Mark Littlejohn – Curves and Colours

Ok, I’m going to stick my neck out, this is my favourite image of 2015 from people I know or follow.

Curves and Colours

9. Chaitanya Deshpande – Free Bird

Simplicity often creates the most sublime images…

Free Bird

10. Damien Taylor – Lost in the Wood

Some Multiple Exposure loveliness from young Mr Taylor

Lost in the Wood

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Once again, sorry if you aren’t listed, I’ve seen so many cracking images this year, it really begins to make me feel inadequate. I might talk about that a bit more in Part 2. For now, let’s just enjoy these images.

Greg

A Wild Workshop – Snowdonia Trip Report

During the first weekend of November I ran my first workshop ever, in Snowdonia. It rained. It rained a lot. In fact I’m pretty sure I saw Noah floating down the A5. But, with bad weather comes opportunity.

Along for the ride was Lee Acaster as a special guest. There to shoot his own images but also to help out with the other participants. Given the conditions I was most certainly glad he was there. I’ve got to know Lee gradually over the last year on Twitter. I first came across him when taking part in the weekly WexMondays competition, which he subsequently won overall in 2014. He was also the British Wildlife Photographer of the Year as a result of his Greylag Goose shot. On top of that he’s won numerous online competitions on Photocrowd and Viewbug as wells as having images commended in various national and international competitions such as Landscape Photographer of the Year and Outdoor Photographer of the Year. I’m sure his next major competition win is just around the corner. Previously we collaborated in August at the Light & Land Mall Galleries exhibition in London, sharing a space and exhibiting some of our best known work. He is however, unfamiliar with Snowdonia, unlike myself, I’ve been hiking there for many years.

The format of the workshop was two single days shooting from just before sunrise on each day until roughly midday. Participants then had an entirely voluntary choice to join me for a hike into the hills for a later afternoon/sunset shoot somewhere more ‘airy’. In the mornings all of my focus was on them, I wasn’t intending to photograph any locations, but the afternoon was very much intended to be a mission from which I could take away an image or two too. One of the things I’ve heard a lot from others (and indeed one of the reasons one of my clients signed up) is that people are tired of paying money to go on a workshop only for the ‘leader’ to charge ahead, get the shot before everyone, and then announce they were moving on before anyone had done any meaningful photography. This was something I was determined to avoid.

The previous week the weather had for the most part been sublime. High pressure was in charge and autumn colours dominated the landscape. Mist and flat calm lakes were commonplace. I saw several people leading workshops in Snowdonia that that were blessed with ideal conditions. I didn’t get those conditions, that would be too easy. No, the Jet Stream decided to fall south and sit over the UK starting on the Friday, bringing with it wind and driving rain. Rain that I don’t think has stopped falling since we returned. Because of this dire forecast, plans had to change. Lee and I arrived in Capel Curig early Friday evening and headed to the pub to rendezvous with my clients who were joining us for the Saturday. We had a beer and some food and got to know each other and I was confident we’d have a decent start on Saturday morning. There were several weather windows forecast and as I fell asleep in my rather comfy bed on the Friday night, Plan B was in effect…we won’t talk about Plan A, that was wildly optimistic and had been discarded days before. It was supposed to be dry and possibly a little clear for sunrise until at least 9am. Then some light showers before clearing late afternoon.

Waking to a 5:30am alarm and to the sound of a howling gale and heavy rain wasn’t the plan! Erm, let’s go with Plan C…no, err Plan D, oh sod it, activate the doomsday device!

Meeting the clients in the pitch black of a thoroughly miserable and wet café car park at 6am I decided that our best chance of anything remotely photography related rested on getting away from the mountains, which in some way was counter-intuitive to the purpose of the workshop. Hopefully it would only be for a few hours and then we could head back towards the tall rocky stuff. Anglesey was our new destination, to a particularly good area for woodland treescapes and next to the beach for some moody seascape action. Not my cup of tea for sure, but not something I am unfamiliar with either and with Lee in tow who has made a name for himself in such environments I was pretty confident we could work this to our advantage. Arriving as dawn broke we quickly gathered our things and headed for the beach. Miraculously only 5 minutes later we happened upon an interesting half buried log and set about taking some photos of it in the gale and the rain. Not an easy task, but as Lee pointed out, the colour of the raging (ish) sea was fantastic despite the fret. After imparting advice on the relative merits of different focal lens to capture such a scene, the wind picked up and another squall came in which was a sign to head for the trees for some cover, or lack of it it turns out. Despite this we hunted around in the rain for pleasing compositions, not necessarily to take advantage of that day, but maybe when the weather was being a little less cruel. Time was getting on and we needed some breakfast.

Driving back towards Snowdonia we could finally see the mountains that had been obscured by the fret and the cloud was lifting rapidly. We were a little too far away and breakfast was going to have to wait and be brunch instead. In order to take advantage of conditions you need to adapt and given the worsening forecast for the weekend it looked like if we were presented with good conditions, we really had to take advantage of them. As we were a little of out place with most of the locations I had in mind for the workshop and the capabilities of the group, I chose a back-up option, much like the beach location earlier had been a ‘back-up’. We made a beeline for some slate quarries. That was a great decision. Ok, as we arrived the sun came out and basically ruined any wider shots we might have hoped for, but it didn’t last long before the Sun disappeared again. We spent some time exploring the site and focussing on much of the dereliction around us. It’s certainly a place I need to return to and give a lot more time I think, although I did manage to shoot a couple of frames whilst folks were exploring.

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Mine workings (Fuji X-T1)…

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Some of the group returning to the car (iPhone)…

Brunch, and a lovely one it was too. I really can’t recommend the Moel Siabod cafe in Capel Curig enough. Good food, free wifi, friendly service, free parking and to top it all off, a photo gallery, exhibiting local photographers work. One such photographer being Nick Livesey, who just also happened to serve us our brunch. Nick is a lovely guy who I’ve gradually started to get to know more over recent months, so much so he intended to join us for dinner and a pint later that evening.

After brunch it looked like there was potential as the storms subsided for a gap out west that might give us a fabulous display of light at sunset. Those who were able joined me to hike up one of the western hills in search of some light. The ascent was steep and in the end some decided to wait it out on the lower slopes. One of my clients and I pressed on a bit as glorious sunlight came streaming down the valley, until as our hard luck would have it, a heavy cloud rolled over the summit to extinguish any hope of glorious fading light. Next time maybe.

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The light streaming down the valley (Fuji X-T1)…

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Some interesting light around Snowdon and Yr Aran (Fuji X-T1)…

Sunday, and there was a chance of a decent sunrise. Another early start and an easy hike to Llyn Llydaw which lies beneath Snowdon. The Sun was due to rise just to the south of of the peak of Moel Siabod with sunlight striking the impressive eastern face of Snowdon and Crib Goch. The skies were clear and high cloud turned pink as we walked the Miners track arriving at out destination about 20 minutes before sunrise. We might get lucky! Checking that each of my clients were prepared and had found interesting compositions all we could do was wait…and just minutes before the sun rose over the horizon, the storm front that had been threatening rolled over the Snowdon Massiff enough to blot out any hope of light. Along with it came the rain. Retreat.

The rain lashed down and we headed off for breakfast. A check of the weather showed things weren’t going to improve although there was a little respite back in Capel Curig. To take advantage we spent a good hour in glorious woodland close by which was an opportunity for some tuition and advice away from driving rain. It was great to be able to watch Lee and his rapid and efficient approach to photography, something that is essential sometimes given the conditions and something I repeated to my clients over the course of the weekend.

The rain started again and given how miserable it was and the fact that no meaningful photography was likely to take place in those conditions, I decided that we’d still head for our late morning destination, Cwm Idwal, but leave our big cameras in the car and head out with just our phones. iPhonography was going to be our task. Far easier on those conditions, to use and keep dry, and no big lens to get splattered constantly with raindrops. We headed as a group into a small canyon and really tried to focus on composition without all the gubbins.

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Barry taking a shot with his iPhone (iPhone)…

Heading up to Cwm Idwal the conditions were fierce. I’ve been out in bad conditions before but this was something else. Strong Gales and incredible gusts of wind and rain lashing your face such that you couldn’t look up. But, it was fun once you accepted you had no chance of keeping dry. It was definitely the right choice to leave the cameras in the car.

All in all a great weekend. The weather was not on our side at all, but this was a great learning experience and it was thoroughly enjoyable helping folks out, improving what we could and helping them to see things differently sometimes. Thanks to Lee for helping out, hopefully I haven’t put him off!

Some feedback from the folks who were brave enough to venture out with me:

Excellent pre planning and communication prior to the Workshop, explaining exactly what to take was really helpful, Greg is very patient and considerate and on hand to offer advice, he even made us coffee in a pine forest! I would definitely recommend, you will be well looked after. – Sarah”

Great knowledge of the area, allowing access to sites we might not have otherwise seen.  Also provided the opportunity to get to alternative sites when the weather was less than enjoyable. – Les”

Excellent weekend which was both informative and good fun, Being out in all conditions has given me the impetus to get off my backside when the weather looks less than perfect and look for the light! – Barry”

If you think you’d like to come on a future workshop with me I’ll be announcing some dates for 2016 soon. To get ahead of the game and onto my mailing list, send me a message via the website

Greg

 

 

 

‘Mountainscape’ – behind the scenes

I remember back when DVD’s first came out that the big thing, alongside the much improved picture and sound over VHS, was the behind the scenes documentaries that accompanied the films. This reached epic proportions when the Lord of the Rings Special Edition trilogy was released. There was more behind the scenes material than the length of the film, quite brilliant. This feels a bit like that…

A few weeks after I was announced as the Outdoor Photographer of the Year in February I received a phonecall from David Breen at Triplekite Publishing. Thinking this was just a call for a chat, as we’d had one or two conversations in the past, I thought nothing of it. He started the conversation with “Great Coffee helps…”.

Many people assume that it was the result of winning Outdoor Photographer of the Year that I managed to secure a book deal with Triplekite, and although that was in fact the final brick in the wall, the wheels were put in motion more than a year before that. Back then, Triplekite had I think just published their 2nd title, David Baker’s ‘Sea Fever‘ and were on the hunt for new projects/photographers to publish. They sent out a tweet asking for photographers to submit book ideas. I think it was a friday night and I was feeling a bit cheeky so I knocked something up, it took maybe an hour or so. The mock-up book was entitled UK Mountain Ranges after a series of images I had been putting out on social media that were fairly well received. I wrote a kind of introduction and used a minimalist typeset. I noted that the last item in the ‘Creators Code’ under the Ethos tab on their website, it said “Great Coffee helps”. So, that was what I titled my email to them that accompanied my book mock-up. Of course, back then nobody really knew who I was and although the idea perhaps had some legs, David and Dav at Triplekite thought I needed to mature my profile. David came back to me within a few days of sending the email, thanking me for sending the idea through and suggesting that I needed to work on my profile some more. There was a suggestion that I might be considered for a future Land|Sea periodical should that project gain more speed (unfortunately it hasn’t) so it was a nice way to say thanks but no thanks.

That was that, until of course I did no harm to my profile by winning a major competition.

The process of creating a photobook is perhaps more complicated than it would first seem. Clearly as the book is being published by Triplekite who in turn carry all of the financial risk, they have their own vision and design ethos. It is one that doesn’t necessarily match the views of everyone, but they can be trusted to turn out beautifully presented books. I was basically asked if I had a set of images, approximately 30, from the mountains, that might hang together. I sent them 106 to decide for themselves. I figured they were best placed to figure out how one image might flow into the next, I’m no expert. I only highlighted about a dozen that must be in the book, personal favourites. Of those 106 images, about half of them had never been seen by anyone before. That was an important aspect for me, I did want there to be one or two images that were fresh to peoples eyes.

It took a while for the 1st draft to come back to me, remember I left the image choice to David and Dav, something in retrospect I wish I’d had a little more input on. Dav was very busy with his day job so the wait was a long one. In the meantime the book was announced and the pre-order site was opened with a bunch of orders in the first few days which was very nice. A date was arranged with the printers in Malta, 10 July, and I made the decision to spend some money to go see it printed. Profit wasn’t a priority for me. Despite what you may think David, Dav and the authors of each book don’t actually make a lot of money out of this. This is more about having a body of work beautifully presented, it’s not a money-maker. However, when the 1st draft pdf dropped into my inbox I don’t think Dav or David will mind me saying, I wasn’t happy. In fact I felt quite depressed about it for about a week. Despite winning a major competition my images rarely seem in demand, I’ve only sold a handful of prints and I think, similar to other folks, despite what we say about it not really being about peer approval, it is, it absolutely well and truly is. Of course, you should follow your own path and do what makes you happy, but if you are looking for any ounce of success your work needs to appeal to someone somewhere. What I didn’t want to do was churn out my first book and for people to hate it, people I respected. The images chosen just didn’t fit with my own vision and a few key images were missing entirely. I’m sure to the casual observer the 1st draft was fine, but not to me. Having seen that 1st draft though, it was the first time I understood really how colourflow influenced the design. The book gradually followed a curve from cool tones to warm. There were also a lot of blank pages. Even in the final version there still is. Personally I’d like to see one or two more photos and maybe some text, however, the blank pages do serve a purpose, they are there to make you pause and contemplate, and I agree, they do just that. Going from one photo to the next without a break can very quickly mean you skim the pages and get bored.

A choice of covers…

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Did I choose the right one???

So, having given it a few days thought, I sat down and carefully reviewed all of my images. I’d also captured a few new ones in recent weeks that I was particularly fond of. I also wanted to finish the book on a high with something that perhaps wasn’t quite in keeping with the rest of the book, a hint about the future perhaps. I sent back instructions about what I thought should go where and what images to swap out. Thankfully David and Dav agreed with about 90% of my proposed changes. The final image was going to be a shot of Cul Mor I captured in May. Some rather spectacular light striking the side of the mountain in a cropped panorama. The image was shot with the Fuji 50-140mm lens and despite being a 5 shot portrait stitch, has hardly been processed, such is the clarity this amazing lens brings to the party. I have wider views of this scene, one of which I have shared, but this was a halfway house between a more intimate image and a full scale panorama. We were nearly there, one or two minor changes and iterations and after the 5th draft we had a final arrangement. The next step was printing…

Malta

Lisa (my wife) and I arrived at the printers late on a friday morning in July. My book was due on press within the hour. This was going to be fascinating. We met David and Dav in a nice air conditioned office. They had the proofs which I readily pored over and I also had the pleasure of looking though the proofs for Hans Strand and Chris Friel’s books that were also due to be printed the same day. After a short time the plant manager came in and said they were ready for us to review the pages. The printer (a huge Heidelberg press) needed to be dialled in colourwise to the proofs.

The Printer (the big one, not the little one)…

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Each sheet was eights single sided pages. They print half the pages on one side, flip over the stack of single sided pages and then print on the back. One sheet is therefore 16 page faces in a book. If there is a double page spread (a single image spread across two pages) they both need to be printed on the same sheet for colouration purposes. If a single image has too much cyan or magenta then a change in levels for that sheet can affect all the images on that sheet. However, this is tempered a little by being able to limit changes to either of two rows of four or either of two square blocks of four.

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It’s a complex process and each time a change is made, they have to print off over 100 sheets and select one from the middle to compare against the proof. There is a lot of waste, thankfully the paper is from sustainable forests.

Waste…

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After a few false starts and one particularly difficult image the printer is effectively calibrated and you can sign off the sheet. The rest of the sheets should be almost spot on.

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The speed at which it prints is quite remarkable, about 100 pages a minute or something like that…it makes a mockery of all those Canon and Epsom home printers out there.

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Once all the pages are printed, including the covers, they are taken to another part of the works to be bound several days later. It was going to be about three weeks before they landed on British soil.

A unique Chris Friel/Greg Whitton hybrid print…

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I had decided that I would sign any books that were pre-ordered, so once the books arrived I had to travel to the Triplekite ‘centre of excellence’ near Newcastle to sign a couple of hundred copies together with the prints that would be included in the Special Edition and Luxury Edition packages. I honestly thought this would take about thirty minutes. Four hours later…

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The books are now being sent out and the reception has been largely positive, which is very pleasing. It’s quite nerve wracking having your work put out like this. People are parting with good money and the last thing I want is for them to feel let down by the quality of the product they receive. I’m still nervous, even now, someone out there is going to hate it, I’m sure. But hey, at the end of the day, as with all art, it is very subjective. Of course there still a number of images that I wish were in the book that aren’t, I guess I’m going to have to wait until I exhibit ‘Mountainscape’ to include them in that. For what it is I’m absolutely thrilled with the final version of the book, it feels like a very neat end to the first chapter in my photographic journey and the catalyst to start the next chapter. There are exciting times ahead…

Mountainscape is available in 3 editions; a Standard, a Special Edition, and a Luxury Edition from Triplekite Shop

Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 3 – “Let the music go on and on…”

Have you ever played a video game, or watched a movie, or listened to an album, that is just so good, you don’t want it to end? You just want the music to go on and on. I’m assuming you’ve probably been on a holiday that feels like that. Normally it’s just because you don’t want to go back to work, there being this completely unrealistic expectation that if you stay in the hotel room, or beach house, or chalet, that you can continue to do what you’e been doing for the last seven or fourteen days…living the life of riley, doing fun things, not having to work, at least not on your own terms. Of course, reality is that if you did that you’d probably run out of money very quickly, and even if you could generate wealth, your ‘holiday’ would very soon turn out to be just your typical everyday existence. Inevitably that would become work. Personally I don’t trust anyone that tells me they are glad to be back from holiday and back in their day job, unless they’ve had a holiday from hell, or their family drives them up the wall. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy my work, far from it, I’m just saying that when you are sat there on holiday on your last day, work is typically the last thing you want to think about.

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The thing about the Fjallraven Polar was it was no different. I didn’t want it to end. But it’s taken me some months since Part 2 to write this Part 3 because for that very reason I didn’t want it to end. Once I’ve written this final part then it is effectively over. Of course, all good things must come to an end and in reality the Fjallraven Polar ended well over 3 months ago. No doubt the frozen lakes we crossed have now melted, signs of our camps have been eroded away by the elements and the dogs have probably forgotten the twenty eight strangers that fed them and made sure they were warm and comfortable enough in the freezing night. Needs must. In fact the very competition that won me a place on the Polar has just launched again, trying to find this years winner. I’m going to enter, I don’t expect to win, far from it, but that is not the point, not this time. Enter here.

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Anyway, back to the Polar itself…

So, the night before the final day we arrived at the camp at Sevujärvi. Once all teams had arrived we were summoned by Johan Skullman for some training. First up was how to build a fire using birch bark and firesteel. A relatively simple process that the rest of the group took on board fairly quickly…tonight we WILL MAKE FIRE!!! Much beating of bare hairy chests ensued as the menfolk looked on and tutted at the posturing females. Ok, that didn’t quite happen but it helps the story. Johan then proceeded to tell us that we would be sleeping outside that night and how we should prepare for it. We needed to dig a trench large enough for two people, use our water bottles with hot water to make ‘heaters’ and do things like put the bottom of the sleeping bag in our polar parkas. This was something I was looking forward to, but there was the odd worried face. Trust in the kit. It was going to be cold.

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Team UK merrily danced back to our encampment, we found our shovels and ice saw and began to dig. We wanted a bit of luxury, so we were going to build two rooms, a ‘living room’ complete with fire-pit and one large bedroom. A double room wasn’t going to satisfy us, we needed a room that was going to sleep four. We then made a bit of an error. In the excitement of arrival earlier in the day Charlie noticed the trees were covered in a kind of black hair, I still don’t know what it is, but he pulled off a clump of it and set light to it with his firesteel almost instantly. Eureka! With this in mind we hadn’t paid too much attention to Johan’s instructions on how we SHOULD be making fire. We gathered a whole arm-full of this ‘hair’ along with some dry branches and set about making not a fire, but a bonfire. It was going to be big and was going to keep us warm all night.

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Two hours later and with fairly black faces, Charlie and I gave up on our quest to make fire the ‘easy’ way. Emma meanwhile had been diligently chopping up bits of birch like Johan had been showing us…but it would have to wait, we were invited to a BBQ.

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Johnny and his ‘favourite’.

Fjallraven had invited a bunch of media types from all of the different countries taking part. We sat around a large bonfire in a small copse, eating barbecued reindeer and drinking hot chocolate whilst the media folk engaged with us. A band played some songs and high in the sky the faint shimmering of the Northern Lights danced with the tunes, there was even a meteor. Magic. All too soon and it was over. We went back to our camps, and now, employing our secret weapon, Emma, the bonfire sprang into life! Time for bed.

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Our bonfire…

To this day I don’t know why, but that night, under the stars, in -15C temps, in a sleeping bag with not much else, I had the best sleep I’d had for months. I swear, I don’t think I moved the entire night. I wish I could sleep like that every night. Bliss. Consequently, waking the next morning to sunlight just touching the tip of my nose felt like the best feeling in the world. What was most surprising is that everyone else had pretty much the same experience. No one was cold, we all used our kit properly and it protected us from the elements. For one night only it felt like we had returned to nature, we’d abandoned our artificial shelters and opened our souls to mother nature and she had rewarded us with a gift, a recharge of the batteries way better than any holiday on a beach in the Maldives, or wherever.

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Our camp. Image courtesy of Hakan Wike – Copyright 2015

It wasn’t long before everything was packed away, the dogs were fed and attached to their lines on the sled. It’s surprising just how quickly you pick up the technique of harnessing the dogs and just how quickly you forget about how unhygienic the whole process of living and working with pack animals is, you just get on and do it. Sten started with his favourite trick of being the village idiot, wailing like a banshee and trying to pull the whole sled himself. Rap told him to shut up on numerous occasions. We were held at the start until every team was ready, they wanted us all to go through the start line one after the other, for the media of course. Some of the other teams took a while to get ready so we had to hold for a long time. Consequently when we set off the dogs were full of beans. We were rocket fast. It wasn’t long before we’d left the other teams behind, we were out of sight. Emma and Charlie were up front, then me, and then Tom at the back, shooting lots of video, talking into his camera, trying to be the next Bear Grylls or whomever. Today, our final day, wasn’t going to be very long, about 45 kilometres, again over frozen lakes and through forest. This was easy, just standing on the sled runners on the back. The sun was blazing, what a feeling. Just the panting of the dogs to disturb the peace. That was until I made a bit of an error of judgement.

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Image courtesy of Hakan Wike – Copyright 2015

I had attached my GoPro to the handrail and was filming the sled moving forward from a fixed point when I decided to turn the camera to face the other way. Choosing a section of the trail where we crossed a flat frozen lake, I stood to the side of the sled so that the camera would capture Tom behind me. Of course when you put all of your weight on one of the runners the sled tends to slide in that direction. The trail was quite hard but the snow to the side of it was very soft. My left runner, the runner I was standing on, suddenly sank a little into the snow, enough for me to lose balance and step off. Still holding the handrail I tried to run with the sled, but the snow was too soft and I couldn’t keep up with it, I had to let go. I had actually slowed the sled a little so Jan, Emma and Charlie were quite a way ahead, but without anyone to brake the sled the dogs just kept running. I shouted something to alert the three ahead whilst I jogged on helplessly. They all stopped and Charlie deployed his anchor with the intent to ‘capture’ my runaway dogs. He jumped off his sled and into the path of my dogs who without the weight of me to slow them down were going at quite a pace. Rather predictably at the last moment they ran around him, but the sled behind them didn’t turn, instead it ran straight into Charlie, striking his legs and throwing him five or six feet clean into the air. I saw his leg twist and he landed in a crumpled heap. He didn’t move. All sorts of things flashed through my head at that point. At worst he’d been killed (unlikely, but when you can drown in 6 inches of water…) at best he’d broken his leg. I felt sick, and not just from the running. Arriving at the scene Charlie was moving. He stood up and groaned. He’d taken a big hit but miraculously he hadn’t broken anything. All he’d done was gain a rather impressive bruise. Thank goodness for that. No more GoPro shenanigans, but an Oscar for Charlie next year please, great acting, or stunt work, whichever it was.

As we got closer to the finish our altitude steadily dropped, we crossed more lakes and descended more small hills and the snow cover seemed to get less and less. I could sense we were nearing the finish as things began to warm up, it felt almost springlike. Layers came off and with each one I got a little more melancholy, it was almost over. We stopped a few kilometres from the end and allowed the other teams to catch up, it has to be said, that took quite a while (damn, we were fast!). Eventually we set off in convoy over the last few kilometres. Finally we turned a corner onto a large frozen lake and there it was, the finish line, about 500 metres ahead. To say I was gutted would be an understatement. I cried. Of course they were tears of sadness, but also of joy to have experienced such an amazing thing. Knowing that I only had a few more moments with my team of dogs was heart wrenching though. I’ll admit that at the start, despite being a ‘dog’ person, I’d struggled to really bond with my dogs, but the hours spent watching them run, witnessing their characters, their little habits, feeding them, ensuring they were warm enough at night, looking after them, and them returning that favour tenfold by tirelessly hauling my fat arse through the Scandinavian wilderness, well by golly, I was going to miss them. This was it.

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Team USA doing handstands at the finish.

We crossed the finish line to applause from the media and Jan immediately took us away from it, we continued up a small track by the huts near where we were to spend the night partying, deployed anchors and disembarked. Yep, gutted. Instructions were received about where to pile the equipment we weren’t allowed to keep (the tents, the sleeping bags, etc) and we removed all of our personal effects from the sled. One final surprise, Jan needed us to mush the dogs to his trailer a few hundred metres away up a track. It was only a few hundred metres, but I’m so glad we got to do them (not everyone did). Unencumbered by a heavy payload the dogs flew, I mean seriously, it’s scary how fast they can go. If the rest of the Polar was a marathon, this was the 100 metres sprint. Wow. Massive respect to the dogs. We helped Jan put the dogs in the trailer, careful not to put certain dogs with others (they’d fight) and then we manhandled the sleds onto the roof. One final goodbye to the dogs and that was it. All over.

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Katri saying goodbye.

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Fredrik.

I won’t go on about the party we had that night, or the sauna and the ice hole in the lake (brilliant), the free flowing alcohol, the great food cooked by our personal chef for the evening, the emotional speeches, the thank you’s, etc…even the terrible dancing by some of the participants. Those are special memories shared only with my twenty seven new friends. It’s safe to say the Polar really was a once in a lifetime experience. You can go dog-sledding anytime, but this was something else. Twenty Eight strangers all gathered together with one common goal, to learn new skills and complete the Fjallraven Polar. We all did it, it was tough at times but by no means hard. It was character building. It was full of incredible highs and some pretty rubbish lows. However, everyone kept smiling, everyone had fun. It was brilliant.

Thank you Fjallraven and Outdoor Photography magazine.

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Me and Rap 🙂

Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 2 – “The Sound of Silence”

Find Part 1 of this Blog, Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 1 – “It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside” here.

Can you hear that? The sound of silence.

My four legged friends, they howl and bark,

Then chaos gives way to full compliance,

Eager to run, whether light or dark,

Only their panting breaks the sound of silence.

                                                                 G.W.

It’s all too easy to sound overly dramatic when someone asks you “So, how was it, the Fjallraven Polar…Life-changing?”. Not quite for me, but could I say it is perhaps one of the best things I’ve ever done? Yes, probably. As I stated before, it’s had a profound effect on me. So, what makes it so special? It is a potent mix. Twenty-eight people of all backgrounds, religions (probably) and nationalities, thrown together to tough it out in the Arctic. Everything is organised, nice lodgings and great food, an itinerary such that you are never left wondering what to do, tried and tested instruction, more outdoor kit than you can imagine, personalised where appropriate, and stunning isolated landscapes. Alone that would be enough to make it a special. Then throw in the weather and most of all six willing four legged friends who just absolutely love pulling you on a sled, well, then it becomes special. As someone has since said to me ‘a sum greater than all of its parts’. Perfectly put.

After the euphoria of the snowstorm and the problems that created with regard to logistics, the route needed to be shortened and we needed a new start point. The plan would be to cross the border between Norway and Sweden by coach and start mushing from Abisko. A shortened second day avoiding the main mountain plateau, tundra and permafrost region (a big shame as it was this area I was most looking forward to experiencing and perhaps photographing). Our estimated travel time was 3-4 hours. We’d harness the dogs, load the sleds and we’d be off, probably at about lunchtime. Wrong. As with the flights from Oslo, and the weather the previous day, if things can go wrong, then they inevitably will at some point. Moving 210 dogs, 35 sleds, snowmobiles and equipment to a new start point must have been a logistical nightmare…but the guys in charge handled it brilliantly. Occasionally you could overhear the heated phonecalls and see the grimaces on their faces. The least we could do as participants was make it as easy for them as possible. What right did we have to complain?

After spending about an hour at a service station, eating frites (chips) and getting to know each other better, we received the green light to get back on the coach. The dogs had crossed the border and now it was our turn. Twenty minutes later we were at the Norwegian crossing…along with a few dozen trucks and cars. The road was closed and we had to wait for a snowplough. Snow was still falling over the passes and blocking the road. After a relatively short time the plough turned up, the gate opened, and most of the vehicles proceeded in convoy. A couple of miles later we reached the Swedish crossing…and ground to a halt. Sitting stationary on a coach for four or five hours is never going to be an option, not when there is plenty of the white stuff around. Twenty-eight adults suddenly rediscovered childhood…

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Avalanche!!!

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Max’ Somersault

The thing was, as much as it wasn’t great, all the delays, they gave us all a chance to really bond as a large group. I think that is a powerful ingredient in making this experience unforgettable for all. Twelve hours of frustration turned around by the sheer positive attitudes of all involved, that is pretty rare and quite special. Of course, spending the best part of the day on a coach rather than mushing across the wilderness is going to have a knock-on effect with the plans. When we finally managed to cross the border and crawl towards Abisko along the icy roads it was obvious it was going to get dark soon after we arrived. I don’t think I’m the only one that thought the organisers would just put us up in the cheapest hotel they could find at short notice, or make us sleep in our tents by the road. But, as the coach neared it’s destination, headlights lighting the road ahead, Johan made his announcement…

“Everybody, once we arrive, make sure you have absolutely everything. Get your headtorches ready, we will load the sleds, the dogs are harnessed and ready to go as soon as we arrive!”. Wow, we were going to head off into the night on the sleds, with only our Brunton headtorches to light the way. This was going to be special, very special. No other Fjallraven Polarists have had this chance, and we were going to do it, most of us complete amateurs on a sled. Once we arrived it was organised chaos, again. 210 dogs all barking is quite something, it appeared to be complete madness, but it was actually working like a finely oiled machine. The guides had got all the dogs ready to go (except my dog Sten, he was tied to a car, his insatiable desire to pull would have left him with bloody paws on the hard surface long before we managed to set off if he had been on the line with the others). As soon as the sleds were loaded, Sten was attached to my line and then…we were off, into the night. The dogs were fresh, and so so powerful, we were racing into the night, leaving the noise behind us and entering a world of darkness and peace, only the soft panting of the dogs for company. Along a narrow track and over a few bumps and turns, it was crazy and we were going fast. Moments later we went down a small incline and emerged onto a frozen lake, nothing ahead of us except the darkness. And so it was, for the next 2 hours we traveled through the night in our small groups, towards our camp.

Arriving in pitch black on the edge of a frozen lake near Kattuvouma at about 10.30pm, we had to move the dogs on to a static line, remove their harnesses, feed them, put their jackets on, put up our tents and dig trenches for them and cook our own meals. Given that the waterhole was out on the ice, in the middle of nowhere, and the snow was soft powder under a hard crust, this took a long time. Even with snowshoes on I kept falling through the snow on top. When this is every step it is exhausting. Needless to say it took a long time to get every job completed. As I turned in at 3am there were still folks working hard. However, there was a small reward for all our effort, the Northern Lights came out to play.

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Kattuvouma Aurora

The next day we awoke at about 6.30am, today was going to be the longest in terms of mushing. The clear skies of the night had been replaced by thick cloud and there was a touch of melancholy in the air. The routine of the night before had to be repeated except in reverse (although no matter what, the dogs were always fed first). The food for the dogs was a type of sausage meat, chopped up and left in boiled water for about 20 minutes, then served together with a healthy dose of dry mix. The stoves for boiling the water for the dogs (10 litres each stove) seemed far better than ours, something I think every one of us noted. Whereas it took about 15 minutes and half a bottle of paraffin to boil 10 litres for the dog food, it seemed to take hours for us to boil barely enough water to fill half our flasks. The Primus stoves were good, but I’m not convinced we ended up using them most efficiently as we had been shown. After some more training about how best to use our sleeping bags (something we needed to understand for the following night), we hooked up the dogs and were ready to roll.

In the excitement I must have missed the first team get away, because when we set off I was convinced we were first. It’s not a race, but the competitive nature of our team from the UK (and Sweden) meant we were desperate to take the lead in the event and be first down the 50% hill. A comical start left some of the other teams picking up trailing rubbish in our wake (sorry guys, but when these dogs start, they want to START). We set off across the frozen lake at speed, through snow showers and flurries. At times the Sun even tried to make an appearance, casting an eerie light across the landscape.

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The dogs are lively today, they just want to run!

Top left is Choco, with Schnapps on the right. Abalbo middle left. Unknown dog middle right (let’s call him Blackie). Rap bottom left and Sten bottom right.

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Team UK stretching the ‘lead’.

After about twenty minutes I noted the small figures of another group ahead. We weren’t first we were second…but we were catching them! Another two lakes over and about an hour later we had caught them. I thought that was it, we’d just sit behind them, but no, Jan our guide took his dogs around the outside…and where his dogs go, ours follow. It was probably the slowest overtake you are ever likely to see, not quite in the same league as Formula One, but it was an overtake. The guide on the other team didn’t look happy, but Jan was a rule breaker, a renegade. I don’t recall seeing him even wear gloves or a down jacket for the entire trip, in even the worst conditions. Only Johan is harder (fact). We left the other team in our wake…sorry guys.

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Keep on Mushing!

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Across the frozen wastes.

On and on we mushed, kilometre after kilometre across the frozen lakes of Sweden. Silence. This was perhaps my favourite time on the sled. Others said they found this bit a little boring, preferring the winding trails through the woodland, but I liked the apparent solitude. There was little danger of falling off the sled during these times, you just had to stand on the skids, the dogs did the rest. We even perfected a YMCA dance routine between our four sleds (Jan I think was oblivious to this out front…or just didn’t care much for 70’s disco). It was silent out there, all you can hear are the sled runners over the snow, a kind of swooshing sound, and the soft panting of the dogs. Wonderful. And then of course, occasionally, some magical light…

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Where You Go We Will Follow

We stopped for some lunch and gave the dogs a snack, and then we resumed our course. The long frozen lakes gave way to short stretches of forest, and then rivers. The track got more technical and we found ourselves rapidly learning how to get the sled around tight corners at speed. Jan gave us a little advance warning of the 50% hill (so called because 50% of polar participants fall) and we gave each other a little extra room. Coming around a tight right hand bend I saw Charlie ahead turn sharply left, almost tip his sled and disappear downward. Emma was stood on the corner ahead warning me to slow down. That confused me because she was supposed to be on the sled in front of Charlie. Of course, she had fallen at the bend. My dogs didn’t slow down, they didn’t want to. I touched the soft brake and the dogs took the apex of the corner tightly, too tightly. I ended up cutting the corner and almost tipping my own sled. Goodness knows how I stayed on but I did. Seeing the hill for the first time was a heart in the mouth moment, it was steep, short but steep…and at the bottom were about a dozen camera crew and various persons connected with the Polar. A welcoming committee, ready to laugh at everyone who fell. I made it. As did Tom behind me. Emma was the only one in our team to fall. We were the 75% club.

A few more kilometres passed by until eventually we reached the camping area at Sevujärvi where media from around the world were waiting to interview some of the participants. Luckily they left Team UK alone. We started the routine we had learned the night before. It was much quicker and easier in daylight. The other teams filtered in and I took the opportunity to do a little photography. There wasn’t much ‘landscape’ around so I decided to try to get some nice photos of some of the participants and their favourite dogs, and then it was time to prepare for our night of survival…

–   –   –   –   –

In Part 3 of this Blog, I’ll share some of those images, it’s our last night on the trail and this time we are sleeping without a tent. “Relight My Fire!”.

Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 1 – “It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside”

It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. Not quite the same sentiment as for ‘Your Song’, and as I’m not an overly sensitive fella (most of the time), I honestly wondered what all the fuss was about when talking to previous participants who said it was a life-changing event, but taking part in the Fjallraven Polar really has had a profound effect on me. At the moment I can’t put my finger on it, I think it’s too soon to tell, only 72 hours after I got back to the UK. I miss each of the 27 other participants, most if not all of whom I hope remain life-long friends, and our guide Jan, and the watchful eyes of Major Johan Skullman (more on him later) and the other organisers…heck I even miss the photographer (Hakan Wike) and the TV crews who followed our every move. Most of all I miss my six dogs who tirelessly hauled my ass across some rather inhospitable terrain in the Arctic. I’m sitting here kicking myself because I only learn’t five out of my six dogs names, it just didn’t cross my mind at the time, but now I regret it…small things.

Anyway, let’s wind the clock back a bit. In terms of out and out blogging about winning Outdoor Photographer of the Year and thus a place on the Polar, I decided to keep fairly quiet about it. Of course it was discussed on social media a fair amount before my departure, but I was really trying not to rub anyone’s noses in it, a lot of the folks I know on social media had entered the competition themselves you see. Truth is I also didn’t really know what to expect. I had read blogs from previous participants of course, but even so, we didn’t get our full itinerary until a few days before our flights…indeed some of the folks didn’t even get their flight details until a week before. I was literally told to get myself to the airport along with a small bag of personal effects (camera, toothbrush, etc) and that was it, it would all be taken care of. It’s a bit difficult telling folks about what you are about to do when you don’t know yourself.

As some background the Fjallraven Polar began in 1997 and ran until 2006. It was designed to give ordinary people with ordinary jobs and lives the chance to experience the outdoor life in winter. There was a hiatus until it was revived as an event in 2012. Each year folks from various countries create videos and campaign for votes to get to go. The top placed person in each country gets an automatic place, the second place for that country is determined by a jury based on the quality of their application. We are not just talking about a few hundred votes either, the ‘rest of the world’ winner, Tseren from Mongolia, this year managed to get something like 50,000 individual votes…I wonder how many votes in their constituency the next Prime Minister of the UK will get on May 7th.

The other guys from the UK were Tom Reader, a mid-20’s ex-model who had just taken part in the TV programme 10,000BC, and Charlie Smith a 19 year old student and outdoor gear designer (anyone want a stove system that can boil water in 45 seconds?). I had gotten to know Charlie beforehand, having met him when I received my award, but Tom was an unknown quantity. I met Charlie at Birmingham Airport as we were on the same flight schedule and Tom would join later in Sweden. We arrived at our hotel in Sigtuna (the first capital of Sweden) and met some of the other early arrivals. Having been a model and having been a reality TV star (sort of) my hopes for Tom being a ‘salt of the earth’ type chap weren’t high. However, from the moment I met him I liked him and he proved to be a great asset to our little team from the UK. The same went for everybody who turned up to take part, everyone had a story and everyone was just overjoyed to be there.

We received some education about what to expect and then we were given our equipment that we would need to survive (and be allowed to keep afterwards). I won’t go into the specifics but it was a lot, and we all had fun trying on multiple layers designed to keep us warm in -30C temps whilst we ran around a +20C hotel…phew! We then learned that we would be split into groups of four consisting of two teams of two plus a guide, five sleds per group in total. People were teamed typically by nation and with three participants from the UK that meant that Tom and Charlie were teamed together and I was teamed with Emma, from Sweden. That might not have been a great match-up from a language point of view, but let’s just say Emma has no language problems. One minute she sounds like she’s from Sydney, the next Cape Town, and the next Oxford. In fact she speaks better English than Tom, Charlie and me combined!

Anyway, let’s fast forward a little because you don’t need to know about the amazing meal we had cooked for us, or the early start to get to the airport the next day. Two flights later we land in Tromso…not all together though. A rather unhelpful check-in person in Oslo decided that our merry band needed to be split up and put on three separate flights. We should have taken note of this at the time because it was the start of things not going to plan. We arrived in Camp Tamok about an hour after landing, for more education about how to put the tents up properly and how to use the stoves (Primus Opti-lites). Then it was to bed, in our case in a yurt type building (I forget the proper name) sleeping on reindeer skins…awesome.

The next morning we departed to head to Torneträsk where our 300km adventure was to begin. Unfortunately mother nature had other ideas, a rather severe Atlantic depression was sat off Norway and was driving wind and rain (and thus snow) right at us. The event was to begin in a valley where it was relatively calm, but within minutes of the start the track wound up a mountainside and out on to a Mountain plateau. Reports from up high were saying 70mph winds and whiteout conditions. From the relative calm of the valley, to the casual observer, you would ask what the problem was, but having hiked in mountains a fair bit it was easy to see that high up things would be dramatically different. So, what does a responsible company like Fjallraven do to 28 inexperienced dogsledders, they send us back to camp right? Wrong. Well, just a little bit wrong. It was important to give us a taste of what conditions would be like if were to proceed as originally planned, so we were going to go on a two hour jolly with relatively empty sleds up to the plateau and back…yay! This would also allow us to meet our dogs, begin to form a bond, and learn to handle the sled. I think Jan gave us something like ten minutes of instruction. We’d figure it out pretty quickly I guess.

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Torneträsk

For this ‘jolly’ we were only given five dogs rather than six. The sleds were relatively light and we weren’t going to travel far so it made sense to keep some of the dogs fresh for the following few days. At the front I had Choco, an experienced lead dog. I saw him straight away and hoped he was going to be my dog. A light chocolate brown with white markings and vivid blue eyes, he really stood out. Next to him was Schnapps, a young bitch who seemed very timid and wary of new people. She didn’t seem comfortable next to Choco and I wondered whether they would make a good team. Next was Abalbo a black and white spotted dog, who again seemed quite timid.

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Choco

At the back were the two big boys, the powerhouses. First there was Sten, he looked like he had a bit of German Shepherd in him, he also wailed…a lot. Whereas other dogs had barks or howls, he yelled, constantly. It was annoying and funny at the same time. He also didn’t seem to have the highest IQ of the bunch because as soon as you put him on the line all harnessed up he wanted to pull and he did so with frightening strength. On more than one occasion later when we had stopped and deployed our anchors, he could single-handedly pull the 100kg sled and the anchor out of where it was embedded…strong. Finally there was Rap, a mainly black dog with piercing blue eyes. He actually ended up being my favourite, mainly because of how he ran, I could just watch him for ages whilst on the back of the sled. He would tollerate Sten for a while, put up with the constant pulling and the yelling, but then he would put his foot down, or more specifically his teeth. These guys could be quite ferocious, but there was no question in dog terms who was in charge in this team, Rap was the man…or the dog.

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Rap

Once all the dogs were harnessed we stowed our anchors and released the ropes from the trees and we were off, at quite a speed, these dogs could pull! Very soon we were heading upwards, having to jump off the sled to run and push occasionally, otherwise the leaders would turn their heads and give you dirty looks, quizzing you as to why you weren’t helping. Despite being a few pounds heavier than I wanted to be, I was quite pleased the fitness work I had done before the trip was paying off. It was tough when pushing, but not exhausting. Once we broke the tree line things started to get interesting. Clearly Jan thought I was struggling a little because he gave me an extra dog, I thought I was doing ok. That’s when things got a little more difficult. The extra dog made me extra fast, and in the conditions it made the sled hard to control. I was falling all over the place. To add to it I had Johan Skullman behind me…pressure. Getting a little bit hot and bothered by having to push occasionally was one thing. Falling and trying to jump on a sled whilst it was still righting itself after tipping up, with those dogs pulling hard, well that was exhausting. To add to that the weather was closing in. At times the wind and the blizzard conditions were so strong I couldn’t even see my dogs, it was a complete whiteout. We rapidly turned around but had to leave the hard trails to do so, entering an area of deep soft snow. There were numerous delays whilst people in the long caravan near the front clearly had trouble. Back where we were at one point, turning a corner and going down a hill, I counted four sleds go past me without anyone on the back. Everyone was having difficulty, this wasn’t a walk in the park. At no time were we in any real danger, but you did get the sense that things could get seriously bad at any moment. We were on the edge, Johan and his team had taken us to the limit…back in the UK the health & safety nuts would be calling for an inquiry right now.

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Image courtesy of Fjallraven, copyright Hakan Wike 2015

And yet, despite this, we all made it, no injuries, no lost dogs, no harm done…and everyone was buzzing. I lost count of the times I heard phrases like “that was soooo cool!”. It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. It’s a feeling people get when you take people beyond their comfort zones. A potent mix of adrenaline and endorphin’s. Euphoria.

For those interested I didn’t take my camera on this ‘excursion’. Not knowing how I would handle the exertion, let alone how the sled would handle, coupled with knowing how bad the weather was likely to get, I decided to leave all of my camera equipment at the start. We had the professional photographer, Hakan Wike, covering the the event and numerous other folks had Sony action cams (provided by the organisers) to shoot stuff, so it wasn’t as if the event wouldn’t be recorded. Given some of the images I’ve seen since, I was perhaps being a bit too cautious with my equipment, there was opportunity to get some really great imagery, but all things considered I’m just glad I have the memory.

Johan Skullman

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Before I finish this part 1, earlier I mentioned Johan Skullman. This man was our teacher for the trip and very few people have the skills to match his outdoor knowledge, think Bear Grylls, then dismiss the 5-star hotels and boorish bravado. Once a Major in the Swedish Armed Forces, he has spent over 30 years in nature’s most unpredictable environments and climates. He has held numerous seminars and is also the author of books such as, ”Soldat I fält” (Soldiers in the Field) and ”Vintersoldaten” (Winter Soldier) that are still used in the Swedish Armed Forces. Today he works at Fjallraven as an equipment expert and test manager. These skills and knowledge he brought to us in a friendly, humourous and easy to to learn manner. By the end of the trip he had a reputation for being the father of Chuck Norris (obvious references to to Chuck’s modern day social media personna). He was incredibly kind and is somewhat a legend amongst current and previous polarists. I hope I one day get to meet him again.

In Part 2 of this blog it’s all dogs harnessed and ready to run as the Fjallraven Polar 2015 finally gets underway – “Mush!”

Quarter 1 Results

Hi, it’s been a little while since I blogged so time to set that right. As I work for a US IT company I thought it might be fun to bring you up to speed by doing a quarterly release of news and stuff. So, here goes…

Quarter 1 Results

Earnings  or Operating Income (“OpInc”) in the first quarter of 2015 improved following increased demand seen in the print sector of the business. This can be attributed to being named Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2014 (“OPOTY”) on 15th February. This increased demand saw OpInc jump 100% year on year (i.e. this time last year I hadn’t sold anything!). We have to be careful as we move forward into the rest of FY2015 as demand is expected to wane from the current two prints to zero as the fallout from OPOTY begins to settle, so for the time being, investment in a new tarmac driveway is under review. We are in this together, now is the time for austerity…err.

Operating Expenditure (“OpEx”) has been very high which has affected profits severely despite the increase in OpInc. Firstly there was a week long break in the Lake District at the turn of the year, followed by several weekends photographing snowy landscapes and inversions in the Lake District (again) and Snowdonia. There was a large expense on an overnight trip to London for the OPOTY awards which was curbed by staying in a hostal with the wife on St Valentine’s day (romantic and all on expense). The total expense of this trip was offset by the earnings gained from OPOTY, some £200 in prize money. OpEx continued to outstrip earnings towards the end of the quarter following a Skiing holiday to Andorra (OpEx mildly reduced by Andorra being a duty free destination…hic).

Research & Development took a step forward towards the end of the quarter with the appointment of “Fujifilm X-Photographer” status. This may give the business limited access to crucial Intellectual Property in the future. We will be keeping a close eye on this to see how it develops. At the Photography Show at the NEC the OPOTY winning image was on display on the Fujifilm stand.

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My awesome self next to my slightly less awesome photo

Photo courtesy of Paul D Kirby

Looking ahead into the second quarter the immediate concern will be the divested entities emanating from the rears of the huskies that will be pulling yours truly across the arctic tundra. These freeze and I’m hoping to use them as fuel for fire to keep warm as we saw in India last year with cowpats. Chances of survival are rated to be low.

The outlook beyond (should I survive the arctic) is fair. Some ‘exposure’ in magazine publications is on the horizon and two other exciting developments are in the planning stages. More on them in the next quarterly statement. We have also just learned about a shortlisting in Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPOTY) with the following two images in the ‘On Land’ and ‘Under Water’ categories. Perversely neither feature wildlife, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Shame, I Iiked the Giraffe, Oryx and Elephant ones they rejected. Results are announced in May.

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Additionally there will be an image on display (“Alone”) in the Connected 2015 Vision exhibition from 18th April to 17th May (launch event on 25th April) at the Patchings Art Centre near Nottingham. Details below.

Connected

Despite this success, there will be no pay-rises or bonuses this year, I need to keep all revenues back to fund my lavish lifestyle filled with kebabs, cakes, beer, holidays and gadgets. Keep up the good work everyone!!! 😉

Iceland: End of Time – The Full Story

Well, as I begin to write this it is a few days after the Category results were announced for Outdoor Photographer of the Year and the response to my image has been somewhat overwhelming. I had received the email telling me I had won the ‘Light on the Land’ category on the evening of Friday 9th January, in fact I was at the gym doing a weights session when I checked my email on my phone between sets. Not something I usually do but for some reason I did that day. Needless to say after reading the email in disbelief I set a new PB on the seated row and called it a day!

I then had pretty much five days of sitting on the news until the guys at Outdoor Photography magazine sent out the press release and made the announcement publicly. That was all ok because for some reason the OPOTY chatter on twitter died down for a few days. Five days is a long time when you are sitting on that type of news, I now know what Mark Littlejohn felt like when he was told about his win in Landscape Photographer of the Year. Of course his was for the overall win, but still, keeping news like that under wraps is hard. This five day wait gave me time to think about the story behind the image. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by a lack of online hate (always seems to happen in these situations). I’ve only seen one or two items of vague criticism which I thought was fair enough, but in any case this all got me thinking and I thought I’d go into a little more detail about the shot.

One thing I don’t think many people appreciate is how hard it was to get this shot. This was at the end of the first serious multi-day trek I’ve ever done. Six days in and I was quite tired. My pack was much lighter than the 24kg it was at the start, but not a great deal, about 6kg lighter. I hadn’t packed quite enough food conscious of having to carry it all for a week. I think we’d walked about 8-9 miles that day and then had to ascend a small mountain to a plateau to camp. Maybe 150 metres of ascent straight up. Not much, but it took me a long time as I was knackered…not enough calories over six days really affects you when you exert yourself. I also weigh about 115kg too, so in all my knees are having to lift about 133kg up a hill of loose soil and rock and no path…you get the idea. Having made camp we gradually prepared for an evening shoot. Matt (typically) had a nap and would join us later, Alex ascended the adjacent hill to the camp (on which this shot was taken), and I joined him shortly afterwards. Neil went to have a look at another hill then decided to join us too. It was Alex’s knowledge of the area and his ‘vision’ of what this vantage point potentially promised that was key. I spent maybe a total of 3 hours on the hill before deciding to descend. You can also read what happened next in my previous post on the subject here.

Previously I’ve described the making of this image as “tripod, turn on, bracket, shoot, recompose, shoot, recompose, shoot”. That is the simple way of looking at it, but it makes it sound like I was a tourist randomly snapping images of the Eiffel Tower. There has been a lot of talk of pre-visualisation recently and I’d like to say this scene was ‘visualised/pre-visualised’. Firstly by Alex who had identified the location as having large potential for a big vista, and then when in-situ by me, over the previous three hours. We could see how the weather was behaving, the showers and clouds in relation to the sun. We just needed the weather to play ball, on this one day at this one time, one opportunity, one shot (within reason). I left the summit early thinking it wouldn’t, my only battery was low, my energy level was low, I was hungry and I needed to eat. That was my only mistake really, but then I have to say that in the direction of this shot, from the summit there was not any foreground interest either, it was just a bed of flat moss. So in reality, by deciding to descend I put myself in a position of actually having some foreground interest. On the descent I reached this position a few minutes before the image was taken. I could see Alex coming back up (having descended to camp for something to eat a little earlier) and I could see what was potentially unfolding. Being quite tired I just stood there and watched for a short while, really trying to just drink in the landscape. My camera was still in my pack on my back. I had a little look around and managed to position myself relative to the foreground rocks. I’m not sure who has really looked at the image in detail but from a composition point of view it’s about 90% there in my opinion. On the whole it is obeying the rule of 1/3rds, perhaps the foreground could be a little higher into the frame, and most noticeably the camera should be pointing a few degrees to the right, shifting the image around a little. I have shots like that on my HDD, taken in haste, they don’t work. The sun was at such an angle into the shot that there was too much hideous lens flare. So, the sun forced this composition. I could improve the overall comp by cropping more off the left side but in the end decided to keep it as wide as the original frame at the cost of a few composition points. The thing I really like though is the arrangement of the foreground rocks, as you can see from this annotated image. I’ve included numbers in the foreground that correspond with the numbers on the distant hills…and as can be seen, there is a certain amount of mirroring going on. It’s not immediately obvious but the more you look the more it makes sense. That is what I was looking at whilst I was standing there taking in the landscape.

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So, as far as I’m concerned, in the end, I got the best out of it I could. It was a shot taken in the end on instinct, mainly because when the light did hit it did so so quickly and my camera was still in my pack, but some preparation did go into making the image beforehand. As for the processing, it’s quite minimal really. I had expected folks to say it looked unreal (Iceland does look unreal at times) and over saturated. I had expected folks to say the sky was too dark (one did), or that it must have been a composite or something. No, it is a single frame exposure. I bracketed the shot, but in the end only used one of the exposures (-0.33EV). I had to do some cloning in photoshop for some patches of sky and in Lightroom I added some radial filters and warmed up the colour temp slightly. I added a grad filter to the sky and used an adjustment brush on the shadows in the foreground. I increased the lights and decreased the darks in curves to add contrast and added a touch of clarity. Finally the image was sharpened…and that is it really. Maybe 15 minutes of processing time only and typical of what I would normally do. To give you an idea of what the original RAW image looked like without any processing, here is an unprocessed jpeg of a RAW of Alex from a slightly different angle a couple of minutes later.

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Now, coming back to Outdoor Photographer of the Year, specifically this Light on the Land category, the remit was “Under sunset’s fiery skies, in fleeting twilight, with the gentler light of the moon, or with the first rays of a new day, we are looking for stunning landscape images from anywhere in the world.”. Lord only knows how the judges went about their judging to finally end up selecting my image, but in the end they said they “…really felt that [my] image captured the spirit of the category in the most creative way”. Well, I’m not going to argue with them. It’s certainly an image that is set under sunset’s fiery skies. There is plenty of light splashing across the landscape. It’s certainly not a typical sunset shot, at least from my point of view. Is it unusual? No, I don’t think so, there are hundreds of images that depict similar events all over the internet. Is the view unique? Well, I know a couple of other photographers who happened to be there on the day that have shots of this landscape, but I challenge anyone else to find the same scene elsewhere. In any case, I don’t think an image is judged on whether it is unusual or not. Sometimes unique maybe. There is one more step to go however, the final judging and the big reveal of who is the overall winner on the 15th February. I’ve had lots of feedback from folks thinking the ‘wow’ factor in my image is enough, but honestly I don’t think an image is judged on whether it has a ‘wow’ factor or not. I have my fingers-crossed, I’d be absolutely bowled over to win overall, and my, what a prize! Dog-sledding through arctic tundra sounds epic, hard work, but epic (I’m trying not to think of what types of shots I’d like to get of the event if I did win, but honestly it’s hard not to dream). However, there are five other photographers who have an equal and deserved chance of winning, each of the images sublime in their own fashion. I’m just glad I’m not a judge.