Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Another side of Mull: Illness and fatigue vs peace of mind.

Photographing Eagles at dawn (mobile phone shot) - I was treated to some beautiful sights of both Golden and White-Tailed Eagles in the beautiful dawn light.

I’ve just come back from a trip up north to my second home on the Isle of Mull.  A big thanks to Scott and Dianne Gates and Scoor House (the only place I stay on Mull, with good reason) for the usual warm welcome and advice on the local wildlife that gets me out and about.  It’s such a great area to stay for wildlife, and I found that this time more than ever, establishing a rather unusual routine which led to me photographing a number of new species in new ways.

My routine upon arrival started fairly normally – go to bed the first night, setting the alarm clock for 4am, which is tough the first day, but after a few days of going to bed at 8pm, the body clock alters just as it would if you’re travelling to another time zone.  Then, straight down to the coast in time for dawn and start work hoping to photograph the otters. 

Only this year was different. First morning, 4am, the alarm goes off. It’s dark outside and I’ve not yet fully come round from the long drive the day before that had me fixed in a tiring spell of concentration (last time I was up here I had a nasty car crash, so I’m now more wary and deep in concentration than ever when I drive, and that quickly saps my usual Super-Ted strength).  Add to that the fact that the otters up here are having a quiet year; this was just starting to become clear last time I was up here in February: I was straight out of hospital, and yet I still found myself on my belly, sliding over rocks with my neck pulled up to look through the viewfinder.  If you’ve never tried photographing otters whilst suffering from whiplash, don’t – the experience is probably akin to swallowing whole, raw nettle stalks whilst head-banging to The Ace of Spades (and if you’ve never done that, then neither have I).  I did get a few shots, although it was extremely painful and I quickly resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t working, so I lay still and watched the otter work its way up the coast, further and further away from me, until the coast was (literally) clear for me to get up and leave.
Loch Scridain in February.

These days, I’m much kinder to myself than I have been in the past.  I no longer pull myself out of bed at all costs if I’m exhausted or ill.  I know that I won’t produce good work unless I’m feeling well in myself, and I run the risk of making a mistake and scaring an otter if I’m not fully alert.  So on the first day I lie in (till 6:40am!)  and head down to the shore for a few hours.  Wildlife tour guide Bryan Rains of Wild About Mull shakes his head when I look at him inquisitively as we pass on the road for the millionth time in our lives (‘Very quiet’ he says after winding down the window of his minibus; ‘one or two sightings if you’re lucky, early morning…but only if you’re lucky.’).  When my fiancée Katherine and I invite John and Janis Allen round to dinner, the same is confirmed.  John and Janis have an incomparable knowledge of the otters on the island, and photos and footage to prove it - not to mention the fact that they are terrific company of an evening.  Despite their advice that the otters are not all that active in many locations, John whips out his iPad after dinner and shows us some of his latest work at a difference site, and I melt with affection for the otters and in particular the behavioural shots of young cubs that he's photographed so brilliantly (see their superb website here). John ribs me when I say I’d like to take the opportunity to spend some time photographing wild flowers and landscapes while the otters are quiet - I’m keen to get out and see so many other aspects of wildlife on Mull that I’ve never made the time for previously.  On the one day that I do try to stalk an otter, I end up pressing myself up against one side of a large boulder with an otter snacking away round the other side.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been so close before probably less than a meter, but I daren’t peer round for fear of giving the poor thing a heart-attack, so I sit tight and let it finish its meal.  I come away with no pictures and a clear conscience.

Loch Scridain in August (mobile phone shot).

All in all, it doesn’t seem to be the right time for me to be photographing otters just at the moment, and I have that shaky feeling in my bones which tells me I need a holiday (the two activities aren’t compatible).  So there are lots of pyjama days, many books read, walks down to the beach (super sunshine!) and only a handful of outings with the camera.  But Mull is a wonderful place and a few hours out with a camera can be more productive than days spent elsewhere.  In the third week, I walk up a small hill out the back of the house.  Scott and Dianne at Scoor House are always very keen to encourage me to spend time in the immediate area of the house (‘before you go running off to your otters’), as there’s so much wonderful stuff to photograph within walking distance.  This is brought home to me on my walk: despite wearing trainers, jeans and a colourful hoodie, standing next to a trig point (could I be any more conspicuous?) and only having a short telephoto lens on my camera (70-200mm), I manage some frame-filling shots (with eye contact) of a Golden Eagle that appeared to fly over to take a look at me.  Later that week, a trip out to photograph a landscape one evening results in a tip-off that there are Basking Sharks in the area.  So the final week is filled with Eagles and Basking Sharks; my Super-Ted strength is regained, and the camera is rolling. 
Photographing Basking Sharks last week (mobile phone shot).
I’m not travelling all over the island as I often have in the past; I’m only photographing wildlife on the doorstep (this is what I enjoy doing most, wherever I am – and what a doorstep!) and I’m only getting up early to do dawn shoots when I’m feeling good about it.  And yet by this point, I’m feeling really well rested and at home so the work I’m producing is up there with my best.  My favourite photo of the whole trip is an action shot of a humble rock pipit – a very common bird in Mull, but one of my favourite things in photography is showing the extraordinary in the ordinary.  The weeks of resting and relaxation have paid off – I could not be so productive if I had simply started this trip by beating myself up with dawn shoots the moment I arrived.  Now, everything feels right to be out and about.

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Back home in Nottinghamshire, I switch on the desktop computer, eager to download my pictures and view them on the computer-screen (and I keep my fingers crossed that my favourite rock pipit is sharp – judging pictures based upon their appearance on the back of the camera so often is always a dangerous game).  Within seconds, the computer feels the strain of its rude awakening and dies.  My back-up hard-drives (which I always take away with me) are attached, and I feel sick to the stomach at the thought that it might have caught a virus and taken my entire catalogue and back-up drives to computer heaven.  Thankfully this is not the case.  The back-ups are intact, although the computer will need to be sent away for repair – it will be a few weeks before I can view the pictures and start to display them online (hence all the mobile phone shots in this blog)…that’ll be quite some wait. Is this what it used to be like with film? 

I do hope my rock pipit is sharp.

Mull in the mirror at twilight (mobile phone shot).

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