When it comes to iconic landscapes of the world, those from the Isle of Skye are up there with the best of them. There is however one trump card which Skye has over many others, and that is its diversity of landscapes within such a small geographical area.
Marcus McAdam is a professional photographer who lives on the island, where he runs his own photographic workshop business, as well as selling fine art prints and postcards. Marcus explains that he hasn’t ended up running his courses on Skye by accident. “I had been travelling round the world for 5 years and had settled in China, where I had been living and working for 2 years. For a number of reasons I decided to move back to the UK, but I wasn’t tied to a geographical location, so it was literally a case of getting out a map and choosing a good place to live. I had been to Skye on many occasions and loved the island, but had never considered living there before. However, as I glanced at it on the map, I remembered its beauty and dramatic landscapes, its changeable weather, and its unique charm. It seemed as good as any other place to live, so thus it was decided in about a minute that Skye was to be my new home . A few weeks later I arrived with all my belongings, bought a plot of land and set about building my own house. My idea for a business was to teach people photography, and what better place to do it than surrounded by the amazing scenery of Skye.”
Marcus’ enthusiasm for both photography and Skye comes across loud and clear. Now his house project has been completed, he offers B&B accommodation for all his students, and explains the advantages of this. “Before I had my house finished, I would accommodate people in local B&B’s, and although this worked fine at some times of the year, it is totally impractical at others. If sunrise is at 8.00am, I need to deliver people to a suitable location about 20 minutes beforehand so we can discuss what we are going to do. We will then shoot for a couple of hours or more before returning back for breakfast. If breakfast is served between 8-9am, what can you do? In the summer when sunrise is in the middle of the night, it is also impractical for students to ask to leave at 3am, or return back at 1am after shooting a mid-summer sunset. When people stay with me, we simply go with the flow. Breakfast is at whatever time is convenient, and we often discuss our plans for the rest of the day as the sausages are going down. It’s a very informal and relaxed affair.”
Although Marcus only offers accommodation to photographers, it’s not only students who are welcome to stay. “All photographers are welcome, and the guest room is themed around photography. There’s a whole bookshelf of photographic material to read, along with the latest industry magazines to flick through. There are also maps of the local area, and if none of that interests you, then there are a few photographic documentaries to watch on the TV. Throw in a nice ensuite bathroom and sea views from one window, and mountain views from another, and the whole experience is one which is difficult to beat if you have come to Skye to take photos”.
Marcus caters for all levels of ability, from beginners up to advanced and experienced photographers. Over the years he has developed his unique learning technique based around what he calls the Six Key Elements. “This breaks down the learning process into easy to understand categories which are also easy to remember. I see too many people getting confused by technology, and it shouldn’t be this way, so I go right back to basics. When I show people they don’t need most of the buttons, menus, and functions on their camera, I see a weight lifted off their shoulders, and they suddenly have new confidence that they can get to grips with the art. I learnt photography in the film era, and my camera had 3 controls on it – Aperture, Shutter Speed, and Focusing. When I started to shoot digitally, I didn’t change my style at all, and to this day I treat my digital camera the same way I treat a film camera. There’s so much nonsense on modern cameras, and none of it is necessary in order to take great photos. The latest cameras even have GPS on them so that you can see where you were when you took the photo! Personally I have never found that too difficult to remember, so would never use the technology.”
Marcus explains that the attraction of Skye for photographers is the diversity of the landscapes all in such a close proximity on a single small island. “I have travelled around the world many times and have visited over 50 countries in the process, but I’ve yet to discover somewhere with so many different landscapes in one place. The only category which is really missing is a desert. We have a whole mountain range in the Cuillin, we have pine forests and broadleaf woodlands. We have beaches and amazing rocky coastlines with sea stacks to take your breath away. We have beautiful waterfalls, cute fishing villages, lochs, castles, and ruins. We have land formations sculptured by volcanoes, landslides, and erosion. There are even places where you would be forgiven for thinking you were in a rainforest in Borneo, although the temperature might give it away! Oh, and we haven’t even started on the wildlife yet! We have sea eagles nesting in sight of our house, and golden eagles fly over almost on a daily basis. We get whales in the summer, otters all year round, and we shouldn’t forget the highland cow! With Skye offering so much to photograph, it can be difficult to fit in all the ‘must-sees’ in just a few days. There are the classic locations such as Storr, Sligachan, Neist Point, and the Quiraing, and it would be silly to ignore these, but I also try to get people to the unknown locations so they don’t all go away with photos that have been taken a hundred times before.”
Skye, like much of Scotland has a reputation for being a very wild place when it comes to the weather, but Marcus himself has been surprised what he has discovered in his 4 years on the island. “I get bored of my friends from other areas of the UK constantly asking me how cold I am or how wet I am, because they, like many people, assume it is always freezing cold and raining on Skye. I too used to think this, and of course there are times when this is true. However, look at the stats and you will see that the average winter temperature on Skye is warmer than the south of England, which might come as some surprise, but it’s simpy down to the Gulf Stream. It is not unusual to have +5C on Skye, and -10C just a few miles away on the mainland. We also get more sunshine hours than London, but of course we also get more rain too. Whatever the weather, there is always a positive when it comes to photography. If it has been raining recently, then the waterfalls come to life. If it’s misty then I head for a forest which takes on an eerie atmosphere – very photogenic. If it’s sunny then I head for the mountains or the beaches, if it’s overcast I head for woodland. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The only weather I find difficult is when it is very windy with torrential rain. That is when I stay indoors and go over editing techniques with people. If they aren’t interested in this, then I panic and reach for the Scrabble board! Seriously though, I have yet to have a customer who has been completely rained out.”
For anyone thinking of planning a trip, the best weather on Skye is traditionally found to be from April to June. July – Oct can also be good, but there is more chance of rain, and of course this is the dreaded midge season. November to March is very quiet on the island, but as Marcus explains, this can offer some of the best photo opportunities. “My favourite time of year to take photos on Skye is during the winter. The sun never gets too high, and even at midday you get lovely long shadows cast across the landscape to help give it texture and form. At other times of year there are generally only a couple of hours of shooting time when the conditions are ideal, but during December and January it is possible to take great photos all day. Okay, the days are only 6 hours long, but it still offers greater potential, especially with the snow covered peaks and if you are lucky – frozen waterfalls and lochs. Other notable times of the year are March/April when much of the landscape turns bright yellow with flowering gorse, Sept when everything turns purple with the heather, and May/June when everything is lush green.”
Marcus’s photos of Skye have attracted lots of attention, and he regularly writes for photographic publications worldwide. He explains the secret of his success… “It’s really quite simple. I can’t count the amount of times people look at my photos and say “It didn’t look like that when I was there”. When I probe people as to when they went, it is always at a convenient time in the middle of the afternoon. You will notice that most of my images are taken either close to sunrise or sunset, as this is when the light is at its most attractive. If I only went out between breakfast and lunch, or between lunch and dinner, I probably wouldn’t have a single photo to be proud of. I reckon 80% of a good photo is in its planning. When I have students with me, I do the planning and get them to a suitable location at a suitable (but often unsocial) time of day. Once faced with a dramatic landscape in dramatic light, it is really quite difficult to go too far wrong. Of course there are lots of compositional techniques which help add appeal to a final image, but these can be easily taught. Even if you just use a point and shoot camera on Auto mode, if you are in the right place at the right time, you are sure to get some great photos. Another thing I do is revisit the same scene over and over again. Once I discover a potential location for a great image, I think about what conditions it will work best under – best time of year, sunrise, sunset, overcast, stormy, calm, misty, etc? I will then return to the location when I feel I have a good chance of seeing it in the best condition. Often I will return and discover that there is something I hadn’t considered before, such as needing a high or low tide, so I then have to work another element into the mix. Sometimes I can wait years for all the elements to come together. A good example of this is a shot I am still working on of the cliffs of Rubha Hunish. They work well at sunset from April – Sept, but I want a morning shot in perfectly calm conditions so I can get a reflection of the cliffs in the tiny lochens which dot the surrounding plateau. A bit of mist rising from the water would go down nicely too! Above all I need a good sky with lots of detail, as clear blue skies are boring. Now here’s the problem…. the sun only rises in the right position to illuminate all three faces of the cliff for 2 weeks of the year. This happens to be June 15th – June 28th. So every day between those dates, I get up at 2am and start the walk to the cliffs, which takes about 50 minutes. Sunrise at this time of year is just before 4am, so I am usually in position and set up with about 20 minutes to spare. 99 times out of 100 the conditions I am after aren’t going to materialise, and I know this. But I need to be there for the one time it does happen, but so far it hasn’t! I have got close, but am still waiting for the killer shot. When (if!) I do get it, people will say “oh you were so lucky to see it like that”, but they don’t understand that luck plays no part in it – it is purely down to determination and persistence. Of course there are times when luck does play a part in a photo, but I always say that you make your own luck, and if you are still in bed, you aren’t going to be very lucky!”
In this digital era when it is so easy to enhance images and create effects which weren’t present at the time of the photo, Marcus explains his own attitude towards enhancing his images. “Many people see my photos and immediately say “oh that must have been Photoshopped”. On the contrary though, as I very rarely enhance my images. I have what I call my 60 second rule, where if I need to spend more than 60 seconds editing a photo, it probably means it is not good enough, and so I delete it. There are of course exceptions, but I apply this quite strictly to 99% of my images. I try very hard to get everything right at the capture stage, as I think a landscape photo is more appealing if it is a true record of time – a snapshot of a moment which actually existed somewhere in the world. I have no problem with photographers who do manipulate their images, as long as they openly admit to it. I can’t stand the ones who claim their photos to be genuine when they are clearly not. I have a good eye for such things, so I can usually tell from a mile away how much has been changed. I will sometimes adjust the contrast and the colour balance, plus lift shadow areas of reduce highlight areas if they are too extreme. Other than this, what you see is what actually happened.
Marcus’s website with details of his photo workshops and holidays can be found at www.marcusmcadam.co.uk. You can also follow him on facebook, where he uploads his latest images on a weekly basis, and gives tips and information to anyone who asks. Find him at www.facebook.com/MarcusMcAdamPhotography