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Caught on camera

Published: The Scotsman (Section: TSMAG) 09 Oct 2004

The Wildshots Photography Course

GOLDEN eagles, red squirrels, ospreys, wildcats – in the seven years since he started his nature photography company, Wildshots, in Glenfeshie near Aviemore, Pete Cairns has encountered some of the most beautiful critters in Scotland.

Being able to tell one end of a telephoto lens from the other is obviously important in his line of work, but knowing when to look for what is more than half the battle.

“Different species are active at different times of year,” Cairns explains. “Badgers don’t tend to come out of their sets much in the winter, so photographing them is really a summer activity. Pine martins are the same. Red deer are high up on the hills in the summer, but in the winter they come down closer to the roads.”

So, what’s the best thing to do on a September afternoon like this one, I ask. “Have a cup of tea!” he laughs.

Even at this sleepy time of year, though, there’s still plenty worth pointing a camera at in the Aviemore area, and Cairns promises to introduce me to the basics of landscape photography, before trying out one or two experimental techniques.

By the time you read this, autumn will be in full swing. The trees will have turned from uninspiring green to photogenic shades of yellow and red, and Wildshots will be about to start its Autumn Gold holidays – week-long breaks that give up to ten photography enthusiasts at a time the chance to capture the Highlands at their most spectacular.

The trips include meals, transport and accommodation at a beautifully converted steading at the northern end of Glenfeshie, not to mention expert tuition from Cairns and his team of experienced guides. Locations covered change to suit different weather and light conditions, but destinations listed in this year’s itinerary include Strathspey, Glen Strathfarrar, the Cairngorms National Park and the National Nature Reserves at Craigellachie and Beinn Eighe.

“Although it may look as if we’re running around like headless chickens, there is a degree of method in the madness,” says Cairns, as we rattle along single track roads in his Land Rover on the way to our first shoot of the day. “If you’ve got a set of changeable conditions, you need to react to them.

“I was planning to take you to the other side of the River Feshie,” he continues, “to a really nice cascading waterfall that works very well in low, overcast light. What we’re going to do now though, because I saw a bit of a break in the cloud further on, is go up on to a hill called Ord Ban, which gives you a great view over the Cairngorms and to two lochs down below.”

He’s not wrong about the view. After a brisk 20-minute walk, we’re standing on a heathery plateau looking out over a scene straight from a Colin Prior postcard. Sure enough, the clouds are starting to break up and shafts of sunlight are taking it in turns to illuminate different patches of forest and hillside.

My instincts tell me to grab my camera and start snapping away before the sun goes in, but there’s more to landscape photography than simply finding a landscape worth a picture. For a start, you need to give some thought to composition. Once you’ve decided which section of a panorama you want to shoot, Cairns explains, you need to look for some foreground interest – a bit of heather, say, or some rocks – something to lead the eye into the picture. Then, if you want to do things properly, you need to set your aperture correctly.

“In this case, you want the setting to give you maximum depth of field,” says Cairns. “That means the shutter speed is going to be slow, though,” he says, “so your camera’s got to be stable – ideally, on a tripod.” Even if you’re using a tripod, the act of depressing the shutter button can cause enough camera-shake to ruin your picture, so Cairns recommends using a self-timer – that way, the only things that can come between you and the perfect shot are strong gusts of wind, low-flying birds and rogue meteor showers.

All this for one photograph? Cairns reckons it’s worth the extra hassle. “It’s very easy to say, stuff it, I’ll take it on automatic,” he says, “but you do end up regretting it, because you think: I walked all the way up there, why didn’t I just take an extra couple of minutes to do it right?”

There’s another big advantage to learning about aperture and shutter speed – once you know how to set them correctly, you can start setting them incorrectly, to weird and wonderful effect.

Our next stop is a pine forest. “On these Autumn Gold weeks, it’s not just a question of visiting iconic landscapes,” says Cairns. “Yes, we do that, but the other thing we like to do is visit places that don’t seem to offer many opportunities for photographs, and really explore them.”

Cairns sets up a camera on a tripod and tells me that we’re about to break several of the so-called “rules” of photography. Instead of keeping the camera nice and steady to ensure a sharp picture, he wants me to move it while I’m taking the shot, panning smoothly from the tops of the trees to the forest floor. With the shutter speed set to one second, the image burnt on the film will be more streaked than blurred, with the tree trunks appearing in relatively sharp focus, but with their foliage and the plants beneath them looking like an ethereal green mist. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, but with practise I end up with a couple of images I’d happily hang on my wall.

As Cairns sees it, however, Wildshots is about much more than pretty pictures for punters – it’s an example of how money can be made out of the natural world without endangering it.

“It might not be perceived as ideal by purists – to have wildlife being exploited commercially,” he says, “but if it means that those species and the places in which they live get protected, because it has a financial benefit for the rural economy, then I think that’s a pretty good second best.” sm

n Wildshots is running two Autumn Gold breaks this year. For more information, go to: or tel: 01540 651352.

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