Skilled, stupid or suicidal?

When you’re out and about taking photographs, every now and again you inevitably bump into some other like-minded souls, laden down with equipment and making the same critical decision – is it worth setting up the tripod up for a shot or is it time to bail for a cup of tea somewhere warm?  Aside from fascinating conversations about equipment specifications and camera settings, the type that get you out of bed in the morning, this can be a relatively normal experience full of pleasantries and jovial conversation. The tricky with photographing alongside other photographers though, is that you can’t help but notice what they are doing.  It is generally considered quite rude and off-putting to just stop and stare at people as they work, yet there is an involuntary compulsion for photographers to try and second guess what another photographer is trying to do.

This is another tale from my time in the Outer Hebrides.  Given they are sparsely populated islands, they sure have their fair share of memorable people wandering around.  You might start to detect a theme in my posts referring to Scotland – funnily enough, it was raining again. This time I was at the coast.  I had been temporarily abandoned by my travel buddies.  They knew of a place ‘just down the road’ (8 miles away) which sold home-made, delicious frangipane tarts.  We had become so addicted to these slices of heaven that we organised our daily routine around the time when they would be fresh out of the oven, warm and ready to devour.  So, with my blessing, the car sped off in their direction, like a homing missile, to fetch me one as my reward for battling with the weather once again.

The stormy view I encountered that day
The view on a sunnier day

By this point in my trip locals probably thought I only owned one set of clothes.  I assure you, the clothes were changing daily but you wouldn’t know it for the same rainwear forming the outer layer of defence.  My drop-off spot was not exactly buzzing with like-minded people.  I was on a very wet and windy clifftop, attempting to capture a long-exposure of the North Atlantic storm waves thundering into the coves and rocky outcrops below.  On a sunny day, this was a beauty spot with a raised lay-by and picnic bench at which tourists frequently paused to absorb the wonderful view.  On this day, however, with the windy weather whirling around, I was the only one there with my heavy rucksack of gear and tripod in hand.  The only sign of moving life as far as the eye could see was a family of Oyster Catchers on the nearby rocks, so I felt obliged as a wildlife photographer to capture them as well.

Oyster catcher chick
One of the parent oyster catcher keeping a wary an eye on me
One of the parent oyster catchers trying to keep warm by standing on one leg

Long exposures can be a bit hit and miss.  A wave crashing in a certain way can look spectacular, but it was proving tricky to get the sense of motion passing through the composition I wanted.  Half an hour or so passed and I was still trying. Admittedly the vision of a warm frangipane heading my way was helping to keep me going, much like a cartoon dog dreaming of sausages.

A long exposure capture of the water draining from the rocks after a particularly big wave

Whilst my camera was busy capturing a 30 second exposure I noticed a car pull up with a couple inside.  The husband purposefully got out of the car, went straight to the boot and started to extract his camera.  I couldn’t help but smile at his wife’s reaction to this development.  She got out of the car, leant over the roof, said something along the lines of ‘I’ll stay in the car and read…don’t be too long’, got back in, reclined the seat, slid her spectacles down onto her nose and proceeded to become thoroughly engrossed in her book.  Needless to say, it was quite evident that she was used to her husband’s antics and not in the least bit interested in what he was doing. Her husband, meanwhile, had marched off towards the clifftops to take some photos. This was, to put it politely, inconvenient for me.  I was trying to do wide angle shots and he had just plonked himself in my composition.  He was too far away for me to ask him to move aside though and I didn’t want to leave my tripod teetering on the clifftop (my expensive kit laden bag was acting as its anchor). Instead, I had no choice but to watch him go about taking his shots at a leisurely pace. He seemed to know what he was doing in terms of confidently fiddling with the settings and taking a snap or two.  I watched him roam around, pondering whether he was onto something in terms of a better angle but was then surprised to see that he was more interested in getting down to a lower level than capturing the dramatic view unfolding in front of him.  I could see the appeal, the possible compositions from the lower rocks did look promising.  Plus, him heading that way removed him from my shot, so I wasn’t complaining.

Time passed by but I was getting increasingly distracted by the fact that he had gone out of view.  I glanced across to his wife but her eyes never wavered from the pages of her book. The wild waves of the approaching storm were becoming increasingly powerful and unpredictable, that much was evident from my mixture of photographs. Sometimes the water would swell right up, making large sections of the cliff vanish completely.  Other times you could hear the gravel being sucked out from the rock pools as the ocean dragged out seemingly every last drop of water.

The water level between waves
The water level a second later as a wave came crashing into the rocks

I had to keep reminding myself that he was a grown man who could look after himself. Also, realistically, I couldn’t do much to help him if he did fall, other than alert his wife and get help. I therefore reasoned that the best place I could be was between him and their car, ready to raise the alarm if needed. Given she wouldn’t have noticed if a meteor had shot across the sky, let alone her hubby slipping off a rock into the ocean in the distance, I felt it was my duty to keep an eye out.  This man sure knew how to make a girl’s heart race though. I thought he had been reckless clambering down the cliff at all. I then spotted the top of his head at the very bottom as he scrambled onto the rocks at the waterline, which were just centimetres away from becoming submerged.  He was literally on the very edge, crouched down on a solitary slippery rock, trying to get freehand sea level perspective shots as the waves came crashing in towards and around him.  This was the moment I thought he was definitely at least a little bit stupid.

It felt like a very predictable episode of Casualty was about to unfold before my eyes.  I should point out, my seeing him below involved me turning into that curtain twitching neighbour we all dread.  I had edged to within 10 feet or so of the cliff-edge to cautiously peer over in a way that I felt wasn’t obviously stalkerish.  With the distinct lack of other people around, if he had looked up at that moment, I think it would have been blatantly obvious that I was watching him, but in that moment I kidded myself that I was being subtle and ninja like in my approach.  As I helplessly watched him keep snapping away it then occurred to me that anyone else witnessing the scene afresh, if they didn’t see that he was holding a camera, may have mistaken him for being suicidal.  No sane person would crouch on the edge of a rock whilst the Atlantic angrily thunders in, just for the fun of it to kill some time on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

On the other hand, there was no doubting that what he was doing was actually quite skilled.  I am assuming he was managing to get relatively sharp shots, despite not having a tripod, to persist in such adverse conditions for so long.  The wind at sea level alone would have been very hard to content with, let alone the spray, keeping balanced on a pointy rock and maintaining a steady hand.  Oh and the time pressure of his impatient wife watching the clock in the car. Consequently, part of me was looking on in awe at this average bloke managing to pull off a Bear Grylls-esque approach to photographing the true essence of the wild Scottish landscape.  I had to respect him for that but in equal measure, as he nonchalantly walked past me back to his car, I couldn’t avoid the fact that what he had just done was idiotic on so many levels. There was no doubting in my mind that he was somewhat stupid.  The nearest hospital was at the other end of the adjacent island, an hour and a half’s drive away. If he had fallen, a sea rescue helicopter from the mainland would have had to have been scrambled.

His wife did notice him get back into the driver’s seat but only by the most fleeting of glances from her book. I suspect she might have agreed with me on the stupid front. I’ll never know, as my bakery delivery had just arrived and taken all of my attention. It was truly delicious. Go to the Outer Hebrides, even if it is just for the cakes. You get to eat them surrounded by stunning scenery or squished in the back of a steamed up car alongside wet camera equipment.  Both are memorable and authentic Scottish road trip experiences.

Sometimes going the extra mile to try and get a brilliant shot just isn’t worth it.  I was very content with the low risk of death and high level of satisfaction I had by taking my photos from the top of the cliffs.  I could bet money on the fact that, at the very least, he had a lot of spray droplets on his lens to painstakingly edit out in Photoshop. Not to mention the earful from his wife for being gone for so long.  I wonder if he thought it was worth it? My advice – aim to be a skilled photographer, not a stupid one.



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