A Little Highland Fling

Once in a while a job comes along that reminds me exactly why I became a photographer, and why I sometimes put up with all the trials and tribulations that often go with it. I got a call in January from one of my oldest clients, Men's Fitness magazine, asking if I wanted to spend 4 days up in the Highlands of Scotland in February, shooting a story about a journalist trying to use basic survival skills in the most remote part of the British Isles.

Given how much of my spare time I spend in places like the Highlands (and the fact that I'd actually been to the very place in question about a decade ago) I said yes without hesitation. And then the fun began.

The journalist in question was Mr Nick Hutchings, the features editor of the mag. He's far fitter than I am, and has lots of experience in mountainous areas doing trendy things like snowboarding. However, he had almost no experience of navigating, camping or surviving in a place like the Scottish highlands, particularly in February. I was called in not just to take the shots, but to "consult" as it's called these days, on our overall plan of action.

Given my years of tramping round locations like the highlands, I initially started out with a very cautious approach, warning Nick of just how remote we were going to be, how cold it could get, how bad the weather might turn, what the hell we'd do if something went wrong and so on. Initially Nick seemed very confident, but as time passed we seemed to swap places, and with a few days to go before the trip I got a couple of slightly tense calls from him, whilst I felt more and more like we'd get through it and have a good time, even if it didn't quite go according to plan.

The itinerary was:

Sleeper train to Inverness, leaving London 8pm Sunday, arriving 8am Monday, pick up hire car, drive to Kinlochewe, walk to a spot we (I) deem suitable for camping in, taking a few snaps along the way, overnight at the site, Tuesday to be spent getting up to the most remote point, and taking all the "survival" shots, overnight back at base camp, then on Wednesday break camp, walk back to the car, drive to Inverness and catch the 8pm sleeper back to London, arriving back at about 7.30 on Thursday morning.

Our first challenge was when the power failed in our carriage on the way up. There were no other berths left, and we didn't fancy squeezing into seats for 12 hours. A train travelling at about 90mph is quite draughty, and in mid-February it can get bloody freezing. Coupled with the complete darkness, and we ended up cracking out much of the camping gear before we'd even got off the train.

The trek up to the campsite was uneventful, but a bit damp, and, frankly, bloody exhausting. Walking on paths and tracks is all very well with 17-18KG on your back and a camera strapped round your front, but when it comes to yomping across the open moorland it starts to become quite arduous. This of course was going to continue for the entire trip - alleviated slightly on the 2nd day when we didn't have to carry the tent.

Finding a suitable place to pitch the tent proved very difficult indeed. For those of you not familiar with the wilds of Scotland, soft, grassy, level areas are a bit thin on the ground, and we ended up pitching very gingerly on the least spiky bit of heather we could find, taking great care not to pierce the groundsheet. After a little evening stroll down to the the perfectly still Loch we cooked a nutritious and healthy ready meal, played some cards, read a few survival guides and went to bed. Nightlife in the most remote part of the highlands is a little lacking I'm afraid.

Tuesday morning was very, very cold, but perfectly clear - not a cloud to be seen, though lots of frost on the tent. We were planning to spend the day making our way to the "official" most remote point in the UK, taking lots of the required survival shots on the way. In the end we failed in the first task because we spent too long on the second. Even without having to set up lights and things, it still takes ages to get all the shots done when you've got to cover a large area and photograph everything from navigating, building shelters, to gathering wood and making fire.

By the afternoon of the Tuesday a problem was starting to develop. One which we'd both been reluctant to talk about, and even now I shall have to tread carefully in my description of forthcoming events. Since Sunday neither of us had felt the need to, shall we say, tear a sheet off a roll of paper. Whilst there was still daylight available we took my brand new ultra-clever folding shovel and dug a small latrine, only for same shovel to snap just as we dug out the last sod. Nick's need was greater than mine, and so he was privileged to partake of the proper facilities - cold running water, splendid views of the Western Highlands, and all the heather you could want to wipe your arse with.

Another splendid dinner was followed by another evening of witty conversation, dancing, backgammon and shove ha'penny, before we retired to bed. Sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere is never the easiest thing, even when tired, and when the slightest movement exposes a new bit of you to the cold, slumber rarely comes quickly. In my case I had another factor working against me. My "lower half" was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, but the prospect of going out into the sub-zero temperatures was in no way appealing. I spent a good hour or so going through the same thought process we've all used at one time or other before I was prompted by a grunt from the other end of the tent -"sorry mate, I'm going to have to climb over you and go out for a piss". So that settled it, and I set off shovel-less to find a suitable spot.

It was still a very clear night, with an almost full moon, and frost on almost every surface, and whilst it's not an experience I want to repeat in a hurry, taking a crap in such a remote location is not something I'll forget anytime soon, and I'd urge you all to do it before you die.

By Wednesday morning things had turned nasty on the weather front, and we hurriedly broke camp, trying to keep things as dry as possible, and in the process I LOST A GLOVE AND BECAME QUITE ANGRY ABOUT IT. We skipped breakfast (a stupid thing to do) and headed back, fully laden, as fast as our legs would carry us, which in Nick's case was subtly faster than mine. The return trip to the car with full packs on our backs was something of an endurance test, and to be honest, the last 2 miles were basically achieved on willpower alone. We both adopted variations of marching rhythms simply to persuade the correct leg to swing forward at the right moment.

Returning to Inverness we were disappointed to find no fanfares heralding our arrival, though clean dry clothes, a curry, and a couple of pints more than made up for it.

A few lessons learnt:

  1. The 5D didn't need it's battery changing the entire time I was there. I started shooting on Monday morning, and carried on for 48 hrs. I took 380 shots, and did loads of chimping. When you consider that the temperature often fell below freezing I find this performance quite superb, and can't recommend it highly enough. Neither did I ever need to call on the services of the 20D, loaned to me very generously by an old friend. There was no way i was carrying a "1" series body on a job like this, which leads me to my next point.
  2. Sticking with gear, a glance at the packing shot will make it obvious that I took relatively little in the way of camera equipment. This comes from previous experience of doing shoots where I have to transport myself under my own power (walking/running/cycling/climbing) and still take shots. After having done this a few times I can safely say that it's better to carry very little gear, but be able to move freely and fast, thus permitting me to keep up with if not overtake the action, rather than carrying the kitchen sink, and although prepared for any photographic eventuality, miss out on most of the shots due to physical exhaustion.
  3. No amount of training could have prepared me for how physically demanding this trip was going to be, but I was flattered in a perverse way when Nick said at the end that it was one of the hardest physical things he'd ever done.
  4. It was quite a lot of effort to go to, just to have a romantic poo.
An edited set of piccies is on Flickr, and you can read Nick's article, which differs slightly in approach from mine, in the current (May 2008) Issue of Men's Fitness. The only real downside to the trip was that after 4 days of not eating/drinking/sleeping enough whilst exerting myself quite a lot physically, it left me a bit vulnerable, and the cold that developed almost as soon as we got home very quickly matured into a proper flu that knocked me for six.

Now, I know what you're saying - "he only had man flu", and I shan't protest too much, only to add that it's the first time I'd been ill in 5 years (the last time under almost identical circumstances after an expedition to Borneo), and it caused me to take the unprecedented step of cancelling a job at the very last minute as I knew I was simply not physically capable of shooting it! Given that I don't get any sick pay, being laid out by illness is not something I do very often - in fact that's only the 2nd time in 10 years, and I hated every second of it.

Apart from lying on the sofa watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which I rather enjoyed.

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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Photographer

British Miltary fitness in Hyde Park - 8.30 am on Monday Morning.

OK, normally if I want to talk about my working life, I'll pick a specific shoot, and hopefully there'll be a similarly specific lesson to be learnt. However, in this post I want to talk about 5 shoots, the reasons being that they all took place within 3 days; August 6th, 7th and 8th 2007. The main lesson I'm trying to impart here is that the job can sometimes be very demanding physically, and that by being organised and doing your homework beforehand, lots of potential lumps can be smoothed out.

I was up at 5am on the 6th (Monday) to be in Hyde Park for a shoot starting at 7am. But not just any shoot. This was a feature on British Military Fitness, for Men's Fitness magazine, which involved the features editor joining in a class. Of course, if I was to photograph it properly, it also required me to keep up with them as well. The session takes the form of sets of exercises, linked together with runs of 1/4 to 1/2 a mile, all performed without any apparatus, and all outdoors. Needless to say, I wasn't expected to join in with the pressups, but then the other guys weren't carrying several kilos of camera gear with them! The session lasted an hour, and was very, very tough indeed. I've worked with the features editor before, and he's proper fit, but the army tested him very close to his limit. I also found it very hard going, as though I run fairly often, I run at my own pace, not the army's, and I don't normally go running with a 1D mark II and a 70-200 f2.8 hanging off my neck.

After getting our breath back, we sat in a nearby cafe to eat a suitably unhealthy breakfast, and to allow me to process the images and burn a disk. I'd already prepared both the box, and a pre-printed disk, so after punting the files through lightroom, and burning them off, I could head home.

A quick turnaround, to collect all my location gear (lighting case, stand bag, tripod bag, webbing gear, vagabond power pack, laptop, camera bag, sandbags, grip/tool bag, full set of chargers) and overnight kit, then a drive up to Hertfordshire to photograph a competition winner for Golf Monthly. The brief was fairly simple - just get some good action shots of the winner enjoying his round, as well as a few of him receiving tuition with one of GM's "Top 25" coaches. Essentially I was on foot again, though luckily not running this time. I probably walked a few miles with and ahead of the group, then, as we passed close to the clubhouse, I took the opportunity to sneak inside and do the post-processing work on the images. As with the BMF shoot, I'd got a pre-printed disk and box ready, and as soon as they came in off the course handed a finished disk to the journalist from GM. Then it was back in the car to drive down to Southampton for tomorrow's job.

I was staying overnight with Katie Dawkins, a golf pro, and her husband, as we were both doing a shoot for Women and Golf magazine the next day, at Katie's club about 20 miles away. I arrived about 7 ish, was fed a very fine meal, then managed to grab a relatively early night, as we were starting early the next morning.

Up at 5am again, and on the course and shooting by 6.30. We were producing loads of instruction features (hold the club this way up, hit the ball towards the flag and the hole), and we had a lot to get done. Many of the shots were supplemented by flash, and I was using my Alien Bees heads running off a vagabond power pack. This gives lots of power, and is a very versatile system, but it's not the quickest to move or set up, so care has to be taken when choosing locations. Also, when shooting under occluded skies, it's possible to spend a great deal of the day waiting for the clouds to position themselves so you can shoot in the right light. We shot until about 9am, took a quick breakfast break, then carried on until about 2pm, when we stopped for a brief lunch. After this point it decided to rain, so we had to alter our plans and shoot from under trees, and claim that rain was what we'd needed all along. We also shot some "setup" shots inside, where it was both warm and dry.

At the end of the day I sat down in front of the laptop, processed everything through lightroom, and burnt off a disk (again, one that I'd prepared earlier). Then it was back to London, arriving relatively late at night, and quite tired to boot.

Up at 5.30 the next morning (oh goody, a lie-in) to collect the art director of Men's Fitness from Docklands, then drive out to Kent to photograph John Hamer, a figure skater for a feature on alternative sports and
fitness. This was great fun, and I enjoyed sliding about on the ice whilst John performed seemingly impossible and very dangerous manoeuvres, sometimes over my head. Due to the nature of shooting on ice, I opted to use my small flashes for this shot, rather then have to run cables anywhere, and the final picture graced a nice double page spread in the magazine when it came out. John was superb to work with, full of ideas of his own and very patient with me setting things up. He even gave the art director (a somewhat ungainly fellow) a basic lesson in ice-skating for free.

We returned to London, and back to my flat, where I processed the images and burned off the disk, then after a very quick lunch I grabbed my camera bag, and the lighting case (now attached to a rolling trolley) and headed off, via the bus and the tube, to the City for another Men's Fitness shoot. This one was less elaborate, as it was simply fitness instruction, with a bloke waving things called "kettlebells" around. My only opportunity for creativity came in the form of the opening shot, which you see pictured here.

I got back home by early evening, processed all the images from that afternoon, and had an early night. Which I felt I had earned.

Now, what's the point of all this? For one thing this is not a typical week, though I'd say I get stretches like this roughly 4-5 times a year. My personal record was shooting for 15 days straight, with 8 of those spent abroad. Likewise I can have a week when I'm hardly booked at all, so I guess the first lesson is a psychological one. Work as a freelance is going to come and go, and if you're the sort of person who craves the security and predictability of a 9 to 5 - I'd think very long and hard about a career in photography. Quiet periods can be as difficult to deal with as busy periods, as cabin fever takes the place of tiredness, and the fear of work never turning up again takes over from the stress of meeting deadlines.

On a practical level, periods like this prove the worth of having versatile, robust and capable professional equipment, and not just cameras but tripods, lights, laptops and so on. Being carted about the place constantly, strapped to the back of golf buggies, thrown in the boots of cars, rained on, and dropped on ice-rinks will soon start to take their toll on any equipment, and stuff that's cheap and badly made really is a false economy if it has to be replaced often. A stretch like this also covers almost every type of job I'm asked to do, and it becomes very important to pick the right tools, and have them properly prepared before I leave. The BMF shoot had different requirements to the Women and Golf Shoots, for example, and I used the appropriate equipment.

Every bit as practical is the back-room organisation that's required to keep the wheels turning. Phone numbers, addresses, briefs, blank discs, fully charged laptops and mobile phones - without all these sort of things, the job would be nigh-on impossible, and would quickly unravel into a chaotic mess. I made frequent mention of stopping and processing on the laptop - without this quick turnaround it's almost impossible to shoot so much in a short space of time. If I'd not done things this way, I'd have been fielding calls from Men's Fitness whilst I was in the middle of shooting for Women and Golf and so on.

A few scores on the board:

Number of shots taken (after the initial edit - any utterly useless frames disappear quite quickly):

Monday am: 109
Monday pm: 212
Tuesday: 573
Wednesday am: 81
Wednesday pm: 91

Total: 1066

I also clocked up about 350 miles, not including any taken on my 2 round trips on public transport, and my total turnover for these 3 days was £1320 ex-VAT. I'm not breaking it down any more than that - I've got to keep SOME secrets!

These cold facts aren't meant to set any records (and they're not even close to my own records, which are 2100 shots in a day, and 1700 miles in a week), but simply to further illustrate the notion of working as an editorial photographer. I'd love to have more time to set up every shot properly, but often the nature of the job, or the conditions I'm working under simply mean that's impossible, and I have to do the best I can whilst still producing an acceptable result for the client. However, the far more positive side, is that I get to lead a really varied life, and the opportunity for adventures and interesting experiences is always there.

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Some Thoughts on Flying with Camera Gear

I've been meaning to write this piece for some time, and it seems to be one of the things I get the most emails about - besides the catch-all question "how do I get to be a photographer?"

These days I fly with my gear on average once every 6 weeks, and even though I've got quite practiced at it, it can still be a complicated and stressful operation. Generally I'm flying within Europe and the UK, so some of my advice might be irrelevant to the US or other places, and as with any other advice I give out, don't take it as gospel - check before you go - your mileage may vary.

Before the Flight:

1. Do some basic research on the place you're going to.

Will you need to get a carnet? (defined below) What voltage electricity supply do they have, and what sort of plug sockets? Will there be mobile phone coverage/internet access? Do you need to get any jabs? Is it even safe to visit? Are there going to be situations where camera gear will need special attention/preparation (such as; tropical forests, deserts, polar conditions, particularly dangerous cities)? Useful Links: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, US State Dept, The Association of Photographers, Lonely Planet.

2. Research your airline.

How much luggage (weight) do they allow, both in the hold and in the cabin? If traveling with others, is it possible to spread your gear amongst your companions (if you do choose to do this, don't do it in front of the check in desk or security personnel)? Check any restrictions regarding certain equipment (batteries in particular). Find out what size luggage they allow in the cabin - check this again just before you fly, just because you flew with something last week doesn't mean you can now, the rules can change very quickly. Watch out for small print, some airlines will allow you to pay for extra baggage, but not the extra weight, so when you turn up with 3 cases thinking everything will be fine, you get stung for quite a lot of excess baggage. In some cases it can be very worthwhile offering a credit in the magazine (if applicable) in return for a waiver of excess baggage charges - try and get hold of the press office and arrange this. Buy a set of bathroom scales and weigh your cases before you go - it won't be any use in an argument with the check-in staff, but at least you'll be forewarned if you're going to be several kilos overweight. For some other advice on this subject (though it was written in 2003) click here

3. Make sure all your documents are up to date.

Most obviously your passport, but also, do you require a specific visa? Do you need any other permits for the shoot such as carnets or letters from a representative in the country? A carnet is basically a document that customs use to ensure you're not importing a load of gear with the intention of selling it and not coughing up the tax, basically a very official equipment list. You can check the list of countries which require a carnet here (link goes to main page - in the top menue pick "going global", then "Export Documents - ATA Carnet"). Generally speaking (1 camera bag - not looking terribly conspicuous) you could get away without using a carnet, but as soon as you start to add any more gear it would be very wise indeed to get one sorted. If your stuff gets impounded at customs it's going to be very difficult to shoot. Even in a country that doesn't require a carnet it's still quite sensible to fly with a printed list of all your gear, firstly in case you do get stopped by customs it can help to reassure them that you didn't just pick the gear up, and also should anything catastrophic happen you've got a list to hand when you call your insurers. Of course, you've checked that your gear is still insured when it travels out of the country, and if required you've notified your insurance company.

Much the same goes for Visas as for carnets - some countries require them (the US for example), and if you look insignificant enough you may be able to pass unnoticed, but is it worth the risk?

Packing the Gear

4. Make sure you could shoot the job in a "worst case" scenario.

If your luggage in the hold goes missing, could you still shoot the job (at least on a basic level) with the gear in your hand-baggage? I always travel with my main body, standard zoom, laptop, flash, memory cards, power cables, spare batteries, adapters and so forth in my hand baggage, for obvious reasons. Out of the 2, your hold-luggage it far more likely to go wandering/get damaged, and whilst you'd rather shoot the job with everything you could want, you have a responsibility to your client to get the job done, and part of this means planning for contingencies.

5. Nothing breakable goes in a soft case in the hold.

The only thing to go in a soft case in the hold of the aircraft should be your clothes. If you watch baggage handlers work you'll see that they don't handle luggage gingerly, or with tender loving care. Anything sensitive/fragile/important should be correctly (i.e. well cushioned) packed in a hard case - one that's solid enough for you to stand on. I can highly recommend Peli and LowePro. Don't waste your time putting "Fragile" on the side of your cases - it doesn't make a blind bit of difference - just pack the stuff well enough that you could kick it about the place and everything will still be intact afterwards. It can be a trifle annoying having to pack things for flight, versus the convenience of packing them for easy access when you get to the shoot, but better that they arrive intact and take a little longer to prep when on location, than they don't arrive at all.

6. Certain items need special attention.

Starting with the obvious - take your leatherman/penknife/machete out of your pocket/camera bag and place it in your hold luggage. Now take care to either remove the batteries from or tape over the switches of, anything that can transmit a radio signal (walkie talkies, radio triggers etc). If you feel the need, remove the batteries from other things as well - particularly on long-haul flights where they may be able to drain right down if left on. Pack all the chargers you think you'll need, then some others as well, plus at least a couple of plug adapters - the new "multi" ones are genius, as you can pretty much guarantee they'll work anywhere.

As a rough guide to packing for gear, have a look at this:

At the Airport.

7. Check all necessary travel documents just before you leave, then check them again.

Passports, booking confirmation emails, parking details/directions or train timetables/tickets - all should be ready, and never very far from your person. Make sure you arrive at the airport early - for obvious reasons, besides, they're such lovely places to hang around in!
8. Be prepared for slightly more hassle from Airport personnel than when you fly off on holiday.

As you approach the check-in desk, do your very best to look as if the shoulder bag you're carrying on to the plane with all your cameras on doesn't actually weigh 15KG, unless you want them to ask you to put it all in the hold. The restrictions on size/weight of hand-luggage are not only different for every airline, and subject to frequent changes, but they seem to be open to individual interpretation. A couple of years ago I flew with exactly the same rucsac 2 weeks apart - the first time no-one batted an eyelid, but the second time I was forced to put the rucsac in the hold and carry my cameras round my neck and in my hands. I can recommend using the automated check-in desks wherever they area available to help avoid this. And remember to answer the stupid anodyne questions of "did you pack this yourself, and did you put any bombs in it?" with patience, and don't bother cracking any jokes.

Next you'll come to the joys of getting through security. It's impossible for me to offer concrete guidelines here, as the restrictions change almost daily - just remember to check right before you leave. I get my hand luggage properly searched (as in, emptied out, checked for explosives and so forth) about a third of the time I fly, and almost always at the UK end, rather than on the way back.

Once through security, don't be completely stunned if you hear your name called over the PA - I've had to go down to the baggage area more than once to reassure people that the batteries/lighting stands etc were harmless. This is where your AoP press pass, and your printed list of gear/carnet may be handy.

On the Return trip.

(obviously all the packing/before the airport/at the airport stuff applies again, but I won't bother repeating it)

9. Play the percentages.

It sounds utterly paranoid, but in the days when I used to fly off to foreign countries as an assistant and shoot catalogues, we would split the film on the return journey. Say we'd shot roughly 2 rolls of each "image" we'd split them up so that I was carrying all the "A" rolls and the photographer was holding all the "B" rolls. This way if one of us got abducted by aliens/arrested for being drunk and disorderly then the job would still get home OK. In the digital age this is very easy to do - for example you could give all your memory cards/burnt disks to a colleague/assistant whilst you carry the laptop (which still has all the images on), or any combination that suits you.

10. Never fly with Ryanair.

Needs no explaining, and it's only my opinion, but just take my word for it.

Update - 16/10/07

Just found an article on the Telegraph site that lists all the current hand luggage rules for various airlines. Although obviously these can change at the last minute, it's a very good place to start, plus it has links to each airline's website, so you'll be able to make last minute checks.

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