30th December 2015
My recent trip to the Isle of Skye and the Lake District was challenging in many ways but primarily due to the weather. Endless autumnal rain that hit the western half of the UK for several weeks had saturated the ground. Throughout my trip , lakes were full, rivers surging, waterfalls in places they rarely occurred. It was this weather that was persistent throughout most of my trip and that tested both human and mechanical machines to the limits ! Ok, this wasn't akin to a modern day Shackelton expedition but by photographic standards it was a genuine test. The full story of the locations and images can be seen on my previous blog ( ) but here I'm just going to list the items I took, how they coped and what, if anything, I might do differently next time. Hopefully I have included a few tips/ideas for those new to landscape photography or those just trying to get the best out of any visit to Skye or indeed any similarly windswept location where the weather dominates. I've added a few pictures taken on my iPhone. Please note I'm not recommending or comparing any makes or models of camera here but just relaying how my gear did in the conditions I came across. As they say, the best camera you can have is the "one you're carrying……..and the one that works!!"

NIKON D810: My "go to" camera for anything which doesn't require high iso, high frames-per-second facilities. I love my Nikon D4 which is totally bullet proof, great for shooting wildlife and I can see why professional sports/news photographers swear by it. But for landscapes the D810 comes into it's own, Also simpler issues like it being 50% lighter than the D4 do make a difference when climbing mountains or trying to keep weight to a minimum. Here you see the size difference between the two.

Excellent quality, very well built and has proved extremely weather proof. Even though I try and keep it as dry and clean as possible, a location like Skye will find a way to get at any equipment. The sensor on the D810 seems slightly more prone to getting dirty than the D4 but that may be down to several factors such as it's much higher megapixel count (36 vs 16) magnifying the dust/marks and possibly me just changing lenses more in hostile environments of late with the D810. Tough to tell but not a major issue. Also the dynamic range (the range from light to dark the camera can capture without losing the details in blown out highlights or in darkness) on the D810 is amazing. Once you know this it gives a lot of flexibility with regards using graduated filters and means there is less need to own so many. More on filters later. Live view is a key component of course for landscapes and D810's is excellent and easy to use although the cheaper D750 has a tilting back screen which would be useful at times on low level shots. I also did some videoing which produced stunning HD quality results. So no problems with the camera whatsoever.

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8: In the end was on the camera for about 96% of all my images in Skye and the Lake District. Partly due to logistical reasons (see below) but mainly because it was simply the right lens to use ! When I came back from Iceland I had an issue with condensation getting in to this lens which was disappointing given it's professional weather-sealed specification but was sorted by Fixation in London and it has never blinked since despite appalling conditions on this most recent trip. Brilliantly sharp and useful to have the f2.8 for occasional portrait use etc but it's heavy and if landscape is your only real genre (so you'll be using f/8 or f/11 all the time), then there are possibly cheaper, lighter alternatives out there. With regards cost though, do remember that lenses hold their value to a degree so any higher initial expense can be retrieved if you ever sell. The mantra of buy the best you can afford really does apply, imho, to lenses, tripods and memory cards ! Oh yes and walking boots and waterproofs as well !!

NIKON 16-35mm f/4 VR: As hinted at in my previous blog re the trip, this lens had an adventure!. In a moment of madness I managed to leave this behind in Kent after it got switched somehow with my 105mm macro lens (very useful on a landscape trip!). Anyway for those who love courier services I contacted DHL who promised a 2 day delivery (assuming no tornadoes or hurricanes etc) to Skye. Normally I wouldn't have bothered but knowing I had extended my trip I knew I'd have it for my key trip to Elgol on Skye which was the one location I thought it'd be invaluable, as well as for the Lake District on the way back south. Suffice to say it took bloody 5 days, arriving on my last day on Skye and then the delivery driver refused to leave it (at my original hotel) without my signature so took it all the way back to Inverness !! Seriously ?? Received it back at home about a week after I returned though DHL agreed a full refund. As it turned out I didn't feel too compromised by not having it and whilst, as I thought, there were shots I'd have tried at Elgol and one or two others elsewhere, the 24-70mm was more than enough. I hope that is some solace to people who don't have a wider lens than 24mm and constantly see shots taken at 16 or 20mm and feel they will be struggling . Trust me that one camera, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm or similar will cope with the vast majority of situations.

Just as a size comparison here is the D810 with the 24-70mm in the middle and the 16-35mm VR. Not much difference in size but more glass in the 24-70mm means 900g vs 680g in weight so for some people a 16-35mm, say a 50mm f1.8 and a 70-200mm f/4 would be a good lightweight and flexible (and cheaper) package worth considering.

NIKON 70-200mm f/2.8: For any landscape work the f/4 version of this lens is half the weight and of equal quality but as I use the f/2.8 version for wildlife and low light work I opted to buy this one a few years ago and just have to put up with it's huge weight of 1540g vs the 850g of the f/4. If you're never going to do low light work or portraits or maybe weddings then the f/4 is a no brainer and at half the cost will pay for a trip somewhere !! I must confess that when when I know I'll be doing any serious walking I always question if I really need this lens in the bag!

So my conclusions on cameras/lenses for Skye?: I would, if you have one, take a spare camera body. It's a long way to go and suffer a faulty camera and end up using your iPhone !! FYI I'm lucky to have a spare DSLR but also always have on me my decent quality compact (a Panasonic TZ70) which is way better than a phone, has a super zoom, and is useful for those record shots when driving, climbing or when you want to capture the horrid weather and don't want to get the bigger stuff out. It fits in an inside coat pocket and does a great job if you don't have a spare DSLR and run into a problem.
Lenses...A wide-mid range zoom and telephoto zoom will be fine. Don't feel you must splash out before the trip to do it justice. Also experiment more with your 70-200mm. It drags the mountains closer making them much more imposing in an image, unlike something in the 14-20mm range which can sometimes make the background very small and less significant. Nikon DX format users are lucky to have smaller lenses like the 10-24mm or 12-24mm to consider. For Canon owners the 17-40mm seems to tick a lot of boxes especially given it's small size (and good fit with crop sensors) with the bigger 16-35mm USM offering a bulkier quality option. I haven't touched on CSC non-DSLR systems as I don't own one but having seen some in action I think they are a very sensible and high quality lightweight alternative if just doing landscape work.

FILTERS: I use Lee Filters and whilst expensive they do seem to be a justifiable choice of many. However I initially bought a set of three Soft Grads of 0.3, 0.6. 0.9 strengths and with hindsight I'd recommend that people starting out just get two Hard Grads of 0.6 and 0.9 as I have found those two now cover 80-85% of my photos. Maybe get a 0.6 soft for those rarer occasions when needed. As I mentioned the dynamic range of cameras is getting so good that I think 0.3's are of very limited use as you can rescue that degree of detail in post processing. The other filters in the bag were a 0.9 Neutral Density (pretty much essential), a circular polariser and a Big Stopper 10-stop ND filter (both useful creatively but not essential). I also find the Lee Filter case (picture below) incredibly useful. All the grads are stored safely in one place and easy to get at and change quickly when the conditions are appalling.

Of course filters are useful but not essential. A lot of people now bracket their exposures (i.e. take a series of say 5 photos covering a range of under- and over-exposed settings then merge the best exposed sky part of one shot with the best exposed land shot to create a good overall exposure.) Can work well in many situations and saves carrying some accessories but has limitations so more of a fall back situation for me than an ideal one.

Camera bags are always an emotive choice and I'd just say take your kit to a shop and try it in various bags. From my experience most people buy too small a bag. Better to have a few small spare spaces and it be comfortable on your back than be jammed and everything spills out halfway up a scottish mountain in a storm. But when buying do allow for those sundry items that actually become essentials. Water, snacks, maybe a waterproof top, do you want tripod straps on it or are you always happy to carry that separately ? etc etc.
I have three bags for different purposes but it's actually my oldest bag I find best for "short-haul" landscape shoots. I have no allegiance to any one make but it just happens to be a Lowepro Mini Trekker. No longer available as replaced by newer models and I have seen them on ebay for £30-50. Not perfect but I'll give a quick check list of why it works for me and the features you may want to read across to any potential bag purchase.

Comfortably takes a DSLR, a 70-200mm f2.8, a 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 16-35mm f/4. All big lenses. Here they are in situ. For landscape work I can never imagine needing more room for lenses. A spare DSLR body if romping miles from vehicles perhaps? In which case one of the wide angles gets left behind.

It has a remarkably large front pocket as well as internal zip pockets for small items like batteries, memory card holder, cleaning cloths etc.
Here is what went in mine on Skye.I've left out the bottle of water and Snickers bars !

It also has an internally stored waterproof sleeve. I recommend to get a bag with a sown in attached one as it is so easy to lose or forget a separate one and only discover it's missing at the worst possible time. Equally anything on Skye not nailed down quickly disappears on the next 50mph gust ! The Lowepro AW bags have this but so do a lot of others. My only criticism of this bag is it isn't that comfortable. The straps are nothing special and being quite "chunky" it doesn't sit that flat on my back. But with the limited weight of what I use for landscape sessions that is not a concern and this a great secondhand purchase if you want a cheap solid option and can find one. However if new to photography and at least initially only want one bag and you envisage doing more serious trips then go for a slightly bigger bag than you think you'll need but one that has straps/fittings similar to a proper climbing backpack. The comfort you will get from a proper strap system and well constructed unit will more than compensate for any small increase in weight in the empty bag.

Can be a never ending topic and something for another time I think but buy the best you can and make sure it can easily carry the maximum weight you can ever envisage using on it. I have a larger Gitzo for wildlife but my older Manfrotto is perfect for the lighter landscape work.

You can see from the picture above just how many bits and pieces you can accumulate but I'd list the following as essential for a trip to anywhere with rough weather. All are visible in the image.

1. Lens cleaning/drying cloths. I had probably 10-12 large ones on me which is overkill but they are cheap. Get decent lint free ones. Amazon has plenty to chose from.

2. A strong elasticated bungee cord with hooks (you can see the blue curled one in the photo. Really useful to attach one hook to tripod and one to the camera bag. Much better than hanging your bag on the hook on the tripod where it acts like a huge sail swinging in the wind! This way you can adjust it to get position just right. In fact on Skye I was kneeling on my bag on the ground which was attached by the cord to the tripod in 40-60mph gusts and I don't think I'd have got anything useable without it unless I had ramped my shutter speed or ISO up to crazy levels.

3. A memory card holder. This one is from ThinkTank. It's cheap, really tough and a "no brainer" to keep cards safe, dry and to separate used from unused ones. Rolls up small as seen in the bigger photo and can be attached to a belt or bag so it can't get lost.

4. A waterproof cover for your camera and lens. Mine happens to be camouflage just as it gets used for wildlife work as well. Get one that will easily accommodate your biggest lens as they easily concertina for the smaller wide angles. Wildlife Watching Supplies in Devon are an excellent source for these.

5. I also have a small square Think Tank zipped accessory bag called a Cable Management bag which is designed for battery chargers and cables but I find are fantastic for spare batteries, my cable release, spare cloths, in fact anything. Here's a link via Clifton Cameras that shows the whole range of bits and pieces. I found the V20 mid size bag an ideal size.

Again, a huge topic but here are my thoughts on what is vital and really helps for a trip like Skye in November.
1.You lose about 3 C degrees every 1000 feet you climb and once higher the wind is much stronger than from where you started your hike. So prepare for that.
2.Equally by walking you keep yourself warm but the moment you stop moving (eg to take photos) your temperature drops dramatically. So use layers, thermal ones as a base if cold. For Skye I found sensible layer ending with a fleece and good walking trousers were fine but always have waterproof trousers and jacket as a top layer. If cold (sub +1-2C)then a down jacket is well worth considering.
3.Carry spare hat and gloves as they can get lost or, as in my case on this trip, actually torn from my hand by a huge gust of wind ! Once your hands, feet or head are cold a great trek becomes a horrid one. I wear fingerless woollen gloves with ex-army waterproof fleece lined mittens on top. They cost £6 on ebay, were german tank driver's winter gloves I think and are amazingly good. Whip one off and the fingerless gloves allow easy and quick change of camera settings.

4. Wear good walking boots ideally with ankle support. Buy as good as you can. I bought a pair of Meindl ones about 6 years ago and they have taken a battering in Iceland, the Cairngorms. Hebrides, Shetlands, Dartmoor etc and they just seem to get better. £150 very well spent. Good fit is more important than trendy looks. If they don't feel comfy in the shop do NOT buy them. You'll know when you have found the right pair. The guy at my local Cotswold Outdoor store was brilliant for advice.
5. Finally. I regularly see people wearing wellingtons to enable them to wade in to the middle of streams etc but with zero grip and little support can I suggest to wear your walking boots but invest in a pair of good waterproof long socks. Sealskinz do them and they are another no brainer. Sure water flows over your boot tops but so what and the socks let no water through to your feet and they dry on a radiator in an hour at night. Much safer, warmer and cheaper than a decent pair of wellingtons as well. I use these, have had them for about 5 years and no sign of wearing out. (ps I appreciate Wellingtons do have their uses and mine always go in the car boot with me but I never fancy scrambling over wet rocks in them)

And the final tip. If going somewhere that will below freezing, go to any shoe repair store and get wool lined inserts for your boots. Take out the normal ones or you'll find you probably can't get your feet in !! But amazing the difference they make to keeping your feet warm. I used them in Iceland where a lot of people think you must have proper thermal low temperature boots but certainly down to -5C to -10C I found normal walking boots with the fleece inner soles sufficient. I got mine from Timpsons for about £5.

Skye, like most Scottish islands, seem to have much better condition roads generally than down south (less traffic helps of course!). But roads are windy, narrow and very steep in places. I have a 4x4 so I can cheat a bit but if using a normal saloon just use sensible caution. The weather in winter changes in an instant and the winds and rain quantities can be quite unnerving if unused to them. Remember as well that if you breakdown there are two very distinct possibilities. One, you'll have no signal so may have to walk somewhere (top to phone a recovery service and two, no other car could be along for hours if up in the hills and maybe after dark having tried to photograph that lovely sunset !!
Even though my car can go pretty much anywhere in snow or rain, I always carry in an old holdall in the boot the following. A tow rope, a torch, jump leads, a foot pump, an empty plastic petrol can. I can honestly I have NEVER had to use these for my own car but have had about 4 or 5 occasions I can recall to help someone else ! I also think that depending on your itinerary it's worth assuming you could be stuck in your car overnight in a worse case scenario so appropriate food, water, blankets, clothing all need considering. If on your own I'd also suggest telling someone when you expect to be back. My hotel in Portree had a book you could enter the details in with car registration number and simply tell them when you return.

I whole heartedly recommend the Cullin Hills Hotel in Portree as an ideal central Skye base. There are lots of B & B's on Skye but do your homework. Many close in the winter and given the winter deals the hotels do as "all in" packages including breakfast and dinner the comparative costs can be interesting. One aspect for photographers to consider is have you got enough room to hang everything up to dry off at night? Some B & B's I have stayed in had smaller rooms than most hotels.

Sounds maybe a bit archaic in the days of SatNav but I recommend getting the relevant Ordinance Survey map and possibly a compass.

You can of course save some money by printing off the relevant pages/maps you will need via the internet. Full maps though are helpful to see footpaths and get an overview of distances between locations and great for planning your days ahead. i.e Storr at 0730am, Sligachan at 1000am etc especially if on limited time. Main roads allow for an average speed of about 30mph but the sides roads on Skye (even those called A roads) can be 15-20 mph average or less and single lane for 80% of the time!!)

Skye is justifiably on many people's "to do" lists. A photographer's paradise but equally a harsh environment in winter that deserves respect. Having generally learnt the hard way through experience here is my final "must do/have" list.(Of course this can apply to any similar wet, windy and cold locations):

a) Keeping yourself dry, warm, safe is more important than the photographic issues. Once you are miserable and freezing the whole joy of being in a great location loses it's appeal very quickly and that's no way to get good photos.
b) Re a) always take a spare pair of gloves/headgear even if thinner/cheaper versions as they'll suffice in an emergency.
c) A wet and windy day in the field is not the time to learn how to use your camera. If it's a new one or an upgrade, learn how to use it before you go or take the handbook and study in the evening. It's dark at 330pm in the winter so you'll have time when sitting in your hotel each night.
d) Have that small back-up plan in case a key camera/lens /tripod breaks even if that means resorting to a small compact camera.

I hope these few tips and ideas have been of help and feel free to ask questions or leave comments at the bottom of the page or via the website as it's always nice to hear from anyone out there reading the blogs. NM


Photo comment By Andy Keeble: Excellent ideas for kit Nigel and a very well written article. Re Wellington boots I use Le Chameux Chasseur boots which are superb but very, very expensive. However they last for years, my last pair failed after 10 years of hard wear and I had no hesitation in buying a new pair. They are ideal for Skye and it's very boggy terrain, I use them throughout the year!
Photo comment By Nigel Morley: Thanks Andy. Appreciate you leaving feedback. Boots always a personal thing. Chasseur's are brilliant. I had a pair a few years back but must admit mine didn't last as well as yours so decided not to reinvest !! Just that cost vs quality argument as usual.

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