Note: This article appeared in Outdoor Photography October 2005, Number 66. The text is given here in full; for the magazine version some text had to be cut due to space constraints. The two photographs shown below were used, the left hand one is discussed in the text.
Main Photograph: Yesnaby. About half an hour before sunset the angle of the light was just right. The sunset itself was soft rather than spectacular.
Ring of Brodgar and Loch of Harray. About 40 minutes after sunrise the heather along the inner bank of the surrounding ditch was lit enough to show some detail and the mist on the loch had a while to go before burning off. The interaction of the stones with the background was critical here.
Orkney Mainland is the largest of the many islands that comprise Orkney (of which 17 are currently inhabited). With the exception of Hoy which is more like the Highlands, these islands have a gentle undulating landscape and very few trees with those that do remain often huddling together in groups as though for mutual comfort and protection. The coast of the Mainland is varied and in places very dramatic, especially at Yesnaby. Not least amongst the attractions of Orkney are the Neolithic remains such as Maes How, Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. On this trip, my fourth to Orkney, I decided to focus on the Mainland, especially on the Ring of Brodgar and Yesnaby.
I'd photographed these two locations on my last trip but for the Ring of Brodgar I had not been lucky with any sunrise so that I had to settle for light later on in the day which did not capture the right mood for me. Conveniently Yesnaby is on the West coast and so evening light suits it better. On my previous trip there had been good evening light on one occasion but the gale force wind blowing inland carried so much spray that as soon as I wiped the filter it was covered again; so I was left with a study that showed me it was definitely worth trying again. This is in keeping with my approach to many photographs; several studies might precede the eventual one. As I don't live on Orkney I didn't have the opportunity to make more than one study of Yesnaby but luck was on my side over a year later.
For my second attempt at Yesnaby the light did not at first look too promising but there was a good chance of a change. I therefore set up over one hour before sunset. This gave me plenty of time for final adjustments of position; only along the cliff as I was already right on the edge! My previous attempt had been with the 35mm format using a 24mm lens. In the meantime I had switched to 5× 4 for all my landscape photography. The closest equivalent lens in this format is 80mm but it was immediately clear that this was too wide, either the mood or my taste had changed (of course the larger format is relatively wider along the shorter dimension and this can have a significant effect on some compositions). A 110mm was the right lens this time, giving enough emphasis to the foreground and the wonderful slabs careering towards the sea. The key point was to have the cliff at the back very close to the top of the photograph providing a counter foil to the onward movement thus set up as well as echoing the top of the cliff just above the slabs. Although it was too early to fix the choice of neutral density graduate filter it was possible to decide on the transition zone. I therefore placed a 0.6 filter (the right one for the time) and noted its position on the filter holder. With a view camera it is vital to be well prepared before the best of the light happens; noting the position of the filter meant that it could be changed if necessary nearer the time. On this occasion the 0.6 filter turned out to be the right choice as the light was changing fairly evenly.
Another consideration was the fact that I would be unable to hold detail in any parts of rocks or cliffs facing me. However this didn't worry me too much because no two such areas joined up to present an overly large block and in fact they alternated with lighter parts, providing a sense of rhythm. The swirling sea just under the cliff edge was another major attraction and the relatively small thin rock protruding was a useful bonus. Having set up I was able to keep checking the exposure; I was particularly concerned because my usual spotmeter had failed on my first day on Orkney so I was relying on the spotmeter setting of my SLR (that first day was also when a stinking cold got me, a double whammy). About half an hour before sunset the angle of the sun was exactly right. I made two exposures as an insurance policy (common in large format work, one transparency is developed first and any adjustment can be made for the second).
Despite the two mishaps mentioned I had a great time on Orkney, as did my wife who (by agreement) brought her bike and toured the islands while I stood around in the traditional manner of the landscape anorak. In fact the biggest downside of the trip was the exceptionally clear blue sky for most of the time; not usually a problem associated with Orkney. I'll be back.