That Winter Photography Thing

I’m a member of an electric vehicle owners group on Facebook.  Over the last few weeks it’s become clear to me that I’m either stupid, reckless or inadequate.  Maybe I’m all 3.  You see the thing is that in over 30 years of driving, I’ve never had a set of winter tyres on a car.  In fact until a couple of years ago I thought winter tyres had studs & spikes, or even chains and were only for Volvo driving Scandinavians.  I have a feeling they just like that kind of thing - who am I to judge?

Anyway on the Facebook group over the last few weeks it seems that for the majority of members, the latest must have accessory is winter tyres.  I hope Santa’s elves got their market research right this year so that there won’t be any teary eyed Moms or Dads on Christmas day when the big round presents under the tree turn out to be a drumkit.  

I’ve had to be careful what I say in the group as a result, as any further losses could actually see my number of online friends going into numbers a lot like the temperature of the last few days.  (I’m talking Celsius, just in case there are any Americans out there who read.  this.  (oops there may be an unfortunate extra full stop there for comedy value). 

Anyway I’m waffling when I really should be getting to the point of this blog post…On contemplating my stupidity/recklessness/inadequacy I decided that I would take myself off into the Scottish wilderness (alone obviously as I have no friends any more except that odd chap from Wigan, and even he has winter tyres on one of his cars - the git), and I would soothe my soul by doing that winter photography thing.  

I’d waited in until about 2pm as I was expecting a new tripod to be delivered, but it hadn’t arrived and I was starting to run out of available daylight.  (The tripod did arrive while I was out, but it was totally different from the one I’d ordered so it’s already on its way back to the rain forest).  When I set off the weather was clear, but a little chilly with a temperature of about -3 degrees, as it had been all day.  My intention was to see if I could find a good location for sunset, and then take advantage of the clear skies for some night photography.  I was kicking myself almost immediately though as I’d only gone a couple of miles from home when I saw a fog bank covering the River Clyde near the Erskine Bridge. I love taking photos in fog and if I’d realised I would’ve set out much earlier.

My first stop was on the road leading to Boden Boo, which is a small woodland area that sits virtually underneath the Erskine Bridge.  When I saw this scene I liked the way the road leads into the misty distance, and the colours of the fallen autumn leaves on the road contrast with the green moss on the stone walls.  The way a few stubborn leaves are still clinging to the branches of the tree on the left, while the branches of the other trees have been turned frosty white by the freezing fog.

The next photograph was taken only a short distance along the road, but the feel of the location is totally different, I wanted to make a minimalist image with the fence just disappearing into the emptiness of the fog.  I like the way the colours are almost completely suppressed by the frost and the fog.

Less than a mile along the road again and I saw the sun trying to break through just before it set.  I didn’t have time to do anything other than pull over and take a shot as the scene was disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.

As the sun was now just about setting I set off to find a location for some night time photography taking advantage of the clear skies.  As I’d driven further north, the fog and frost had given way to an ever increasing covering of snow.  “Smashing” I thought…just what I want to make the landscape stand out against a starry sky.  My plan was to head for Rannoch Moor and possibly even Glencoe, but first I needed to stop at Crianlarich to charge the car.  While the car was sucking up free electrons (another thing to love about living in Scotland) I went for a wander up to the railway station and took a photo of the station yard.

I remembered to set the car’s heater so it was lovely & warm when I got back to it which is a real bonus in this kind of weather, especially as I’d driven the previous 20 miles or so with the heater turned off just to make sure I made it to the charger without having to resort to running on petrol.  Now I know some people might think that I’m just being mean not wanting to run on petrol, but that’s not really it.  It’s like a personal challenge to myself not to have to use petrol…planning the route so that I can get a charge before the battery runs out,  and adjusting my driving style to take advantage of the energy available (or not).  It feels like failure when the petrol engine kicks in.

No failure with regards to the winter tyres though.  They said it couldn’t be done!…in spite of some icy patches where runoff water had washed the salt off the roads and then frozen, I’m happy to report that my lack of winter tyres did not result in any kind of difficulty, mishap or impersonations of (insert the name of your favourite Finnish rally driver here),  either on the main road or on side roads going up & down hills on hard packed snow & ice.  

I stopped at the edge of Loch Tulla, but I didn’t get an image I was happy with there.  I was trying to use the Lensbaby Sweet 35, but with only starlight illuminating the scene I struggled to get the focus right, although I didn’t realise this until I got home and I could see the images on the computer screen.  While I was taking photos with the camera set up on the tripod in the viewpoint car park above Loch Tulla, I had thought I was alone until a noise made me aware of a large dark shape approaching from my right.  I couldn’t make out what it was at all so I reached into the car to turn on the headlights.  I don’t know who was more surprised - me or the stag!  He was some size though.

Again I didn’t get the shot I wanted here…there were too many cars passing to enable me to get the long exposure I needed without distracting light trails.  After about half an hour I decided to move on to Loch Ba.  I knew that the view I could get there wouldn’t be as badly affected by passing traffic.  Nevertheless I spent quite a long time here before I felt satisfied that I’d got the picture in the bag.  At one point I set up the camera for a 20 minute exposure.  Did I mention that it was a bit chilly out?  There was no way I was standing out with the camera for that length of time so I went back to the car.  At that point I noticed that the temperature readout was showing -11.5 degrees!  That’s the coldest I’ve seen for a good few years, although with the lack of wind it wasn’t actually unpleasant being outside as long as I kept my gloves on.  

This is the best of the photos I took at Loch Ba, with the frozen loch, snowy mountains and the Milky Way.  I really need a faster wide angle lens as the widest aperture of the 17-40mm lens I was using is only f4, and although I have a 50mm f1.8, the field of view wasn’t enough to capture the scene I wanted.

I hadn’t really planned my day out very well at all.  I’d had an early lunch, and it was now 10.30pm on a Sunday night in the Scottish Highlands…plenty of food around, but it runs faster than me!  I decided that I’d charge the car at Glencoe Mountain Resort and then head home.  I plugged the car in and it said 20 minutes to charge, so why not use that time for a cheeky long exposure star trails shot?

I made it home…tired & hungry, but not too cold.  I’m quite pleased with some of the day’s photos.  Some of the others could’ve been better, but it’s a learning process and the times I fail just make the times I succeed so much sweeter. I’d love to hear any comments you have about the photos, the trip, or even my blog itself.  I wonder if anybody on the electric car group is still talking to me…?

When your wife says no…

…you have to improvise.  No I’m not being rude, I’m talking about camper vans.  I’ve wanted one for a long time, but she’s not so keen.  I love to travel, and I love to take pictures.  What I don’t love is getting up at stupid o’clock in the dark and cold to drive to a location to try to catch the sunrise.  You’ll notice there aren’t many sunrise shots in my portfolio! 

Back in August I went out on a Saturday evening to try to photograph the Perseid meteor shower.  I ended up staying out all night as I was having so much fun.  

By about 7am on Sunday morning though, both mine and the car’s batteries were exhausted.  I put the car on charge in Fort William and decided to have a little snooze myself.  My car is a BMW i3 and the front seats don’t recline very far, so I wondered if there would be enough room for me to lie down in the back if I folded the seats flat… I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was.  In fact I could actually lie full length if I tilted the backs of the front seats forward and filled the gap behind them with my backpack to support my head.  Despite the make shift nature of the arrangement, a lovely sleep was had and I spent the rest of Sunday heading for Ardnamurchan to explore.

After getting home from my trip I couldn’t help thinking about the opportunities that would be opened up to me if I could make use of this discovery…How could I fill the gap behind the front seats more satisfactorily and have a flat, level base to sleep on?, and importantly, as it’s a lease vehicle, how could I do it without any permanent modifications to the car?  After a bit of thought  & investigation armed with a measuring tape I came up with a plan, mostly using things I already had available and the i-Free camper was born!

I made 3 base boards from 12mm plywood.  Taped the edges with black Gorilla tape and covered the top surface with carpet tiles to give a bit of comfort and look nice with the rest of the interior.  The boards are all 970mm x 550mm overall so they stack neatly in the boot when the rear seats are in use.  The two front boards have a 170mm x 55mm cut out in the outer corners to fit around the rear seat mounting.

The front part of the boards needed some support to make a stable base and luckily my 12v cool box is just the right height so that goes behind the passenger seat.  I have 2 stackable storage boxes behind the driver’s seat that are also conveniently just the right height.  The front seats don’t have to be moved from the positions we use when we’re driving around, we only need to tilt the backs forward.  The 2nd box behind the driver’s seat goes in the boot or on the back seat when travelling as there’s only enough room for it when the seat back is tilted forward.  These 2 boxes give a decent amount of tidy storage space for a lot of the stuff you need for a few days away.  The single burner gas stove does fit in this space when travelling though.

The carpet gives a slightly more comfortable surface than just the bare wood, but for sleeping you really need some kind of mattress.  I already had these self inflating camping mattresses so they do the job just fine.  They are surprisingly comfortable and pack away very small & neatly when not in use.  

On top of the mattresses I have normal pillows and a double sleeping bag which is nice & cosy.  I’m happy to say that the comfort level is very satisfactory.

The base boards can’t be left in position when travelling as the front seat backs need to return to their normal positions.  It’s also important to remember to unplug the 12v cool box when the boards are in place as they restrict the airflow to it and might cause it to overheat.  The good news though is that it’s not necessary to completely pack everything away again before resuming your journey if you don’t want to.  The front boards can be slid back over the rear board to clear the area in front of the rear seat base.  Plenty of room for the front seat backs to return to position and a good clear airflow for the cool box.  It still stays plenty cool enough overnight here in Scotland without being plugged in!

My wife also sewed up some blinds for the rear and side windows using some left over black weed control fabric from a garden project.  There’s also a big curtain that covers half of the front door windows and goes across the width of the car level with the rear view mirror for added privacy.  It’s not blackout material, but even in the middle of the day they cut out the light enough to be able to sleep if required.  Being black they’re also virtually unnoticeable from outside due to the tinted windows, which I like as it doesn’t draw attention to the fact that I’m sleeping in the car.  

This was my set up for my first trip away with the i-Free…2 nights to the Isle of Skye.  It worked out extremely well considering, although it was disappointing that none of the rapid car charging points on the island were working and there was only one public slow charger available.  Fortunately my car has a petrol engine to generate electricity too, so I was still able to go anywhere.

Photos from my trip to Skye…

After my first trip I had a couple of improvements in mind.  I wanted to have a work surface that I could stand the gas stove on and also a wipe clean surface for preparing food.  I’m not talking Masterchef here, just basic stuff like bacon butties or warming up tinned food.  This was my next little project.  Again it had to be non destructive and I decided that replacing the standard parcel shelf with one made out of 12mm ply would be the simplest way.  I used the standard parcel shelf as a template, but I squared off the rear edge as I wanted a slide out section to stand the stove on.  I was concerned that without this section that the heat from the stove would be too close to the interior of the car, especially the headlining.  The shelf is covered with carpet tiles the same as the base boards, and the slide out section is covered with self adhesive vinyl so that it can be wiped clean easily.  I used a pair of gate bolts to snap the shelf into the existing parcel shelf mounts.  That self adhesive vinyl is a nightmare though…I couldn’t avoid getting a few wrinkles in it even with the help of my lovely wife.  There’s a central leg that drops down into the boot latch area to support the extended shelf.

The finished thing looks ok though, and importantly it works extremely well.  I dined much better on my last trip!

My last trip was just a few days ago.  I wound my way up towards the Moray Firth.  I’ve never been up that way before and so it was an enjoyable experience seeing new places.  Here are a few photos from the trip.  I haven’t finished processing all of them yet.

When all the bedding is packed away there’s still space left in the boot, and plenty of space on the rear seat.  The biggest limitation to how much stuff you can take being what can be stored in the front seat area and on the parcel shelf when the main space is needed for sleeping.

Nuns With Guns!

Last week I set out on a bit of a photography road trip.  I didn’t really know where I was going, just a vague notion to head North to somewhere unfamiliar.  The weather was a bit overcast when I left home, but that didn’t bother me as I’m not one of those photographers who insists that sunrise & sunset is the only light worth shooting in.  To me, that attitude is far too limiting.  I don’t only experience the places I visit at those times, and I want to make images that capture what it was like and how I felt being there.  I’m also fascinated by weather and the power of nature, so I think an image of a cloudy grey day can be just as successful as a stunning sunset if it conveys the feeling of being there in the moment.

My first stop was at Loch Lomond, just North of Tarbet.  Despite being cloudy it was quite still and warm.  In fact, warm enough to tempt a couple of Europeans who turned up to go skinny dipping at the rocks just along the shore from my position.  Blokes sadly.  

I found a composition I liked using some rocks leading into the scene looking down the loch. I decided to try a couple of hand held shots with the Lensbaby while the other camera was busy on the tripod with some long exposures.  I actually liked the lensbaby effect on the composition better than my original choice and so I swapped the camera & filters over to use the Lensbaby for some long exposures.  After the skinny dippers had left, tranquility returned and I was pleased that this image really captured the serenity of being alone in such a beautiful spot.

  • One of things about driving an electric car is that it takes a bit of forethought to plan the recharging stops on a longer journey.  My car does have a petrol back up so it’s never critical, but I try to avoid running on petrol unless I absolutely have to.  Scotland has made excellent progress in investing in public charging points, so I was able to make a planned stop in Crianlarich to recharge.  It only takes about 20-25 minutes to get back up to 80% charge which is good for about 70 miles driving gently on these kind of roads.  While the car was charging I popped to the shop for some crisps & sandwiches.  This interestingly decorated camper van was also in the car park.  I kept a good look out but I didn’t see any awesome nuns.  Pity really - they sounded like they could be a lot of fun! 

After Crianlarich I pointed the electric road missile towards Glencoe.  I’ve only been through there twice before, many years ago on the way to & from the Isle of Skye.  This time my intention was to stop and take it all in much more and hopefully make some images that I would be happy with.  On the way I made a couple of stops at Loch Tulla and Loch Ba, but despite taking a few photos I didn’t really feel that I was getting what I wanted.  I could say the light was too harsh/too flat/not golden enough etc, but I think the real truth is I just didn’t spend long enough there to tune in to the locations and explore until I found a scene I could connect with.  Anyway I continued on and spent some time in the landscape finding some viewpoints that pleased me.  I deliberately didn’t look at pictures of the area right before the trip as I didn’t want to just replicate photos I’d seen from other people.  Although having said that, in such a popular location I doubt there’s an original viewpoint to be found.

This first view is a panoranic shot looking down Glen Etive.

A little further along the road I chose to wander a bit further from the road to try a view with the River Etive in the foreground leading to the mountains beyond.  After taking this photo is how I found a foolproof way of telling with 100% accuracy whether a particular mossy tuft is solid, or if it is actually a man-trap.  Just stand on it and if your leg suddenly disappears to past the knee, you know it’s not load bearing.  I’m glad I (nearly) always carry my camera on a strap - I don’t know how far I would have flung it otherwise.

By the time I’d got back to the car and driven a bit further along the road it was getting into the late evening and the light was taking on a warmer glow.  Next stop was at Loch Achtriochtan.  I climbed up the bank next to the parking area to get the next view.  I had one camera set up on the tripod taking a long exposure shot, of about 4 minutes.  While that was going on I grabbed my other camera with the Lensbaby on and took a few shots with that.  It was a Lensbaby shot that I liked best in the end.  Not only that, I also had a nice chat with a lovely couple from Nijmegen in the Netherlands who were here on holiday.  Who says us men can’t multitask huh?

I love the way the mountain dominates the cottage in this image and makes it seem so tiny and insignificant.  I call it “Feeling Small in Glencoe”

That’s all for now.  

Using Format