2016 - A look back

At the end of the first full year in which I’ve really begun taking my photography seriously, I wanted to do some sort of review of the year including a selection of some of my highlight images from 2016. I also thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to reflect back on what has in many respects been a fairly mad year, with some notable big changes in my life. I hope this exercise of looking back and reviewing will help me prepare in some way for the big challenges I’m expecting 2017 to throw at me - so here we go!

After a slow start to the Scottish ski season before the New Year, the first weeks of January 2016 finally brought good snow conditions to the Highlands. This was particularly the case in the Cairngorms, where a pre-dawn start allowed myself and Pete Mackenzie to get above the Loch A’an Basin in time for sunrise. Westerly winds had filled in the gullies there well and we managed a descent of Diagonal Gully in clear conditions, before the weather closed in for our further descents of Pinnacle Gully and the classic Aladdin’s Couloir in Coire an t-Sneachda.

Within a few days, conditions were looking good in the west, so we headed to Nevis Range’s infamous ‘Back Corries’, where I came away with this shot of Pete jumping into the top of ‘Chancers’. Later on in the year, this photo was to gain me my first ever magazine cover in BMC’s Summit Magazine.

February brought both more snow and long periods of settled weather, providing plentiful opportunities to get out in the mountains. There were two particular days which stand out for me. The first, a cold summit camp on Aonach Mor, only yards from the top of Easy Gully, providing an ideal base from which to ski it at first light. The shot I came away with has its flaws. I’m not completely happy with my positioning or the composition, however I think it makes up for it with the atmosphere with the sun glowing off the fresh snow and highlighting the spindrift which was blowing up over the top of the gully.

The second was a day spent with local Fort William freerider, Dave Biggin, on a bluebird powder day at Nevis Range. Standout moments include him straight-lining the ludicrously steep Y-Gully and the mega air he took from a flat take-off into ‘Marian’s’ - a powder filled bowl situated near the summit of Aonach Mor. It was awe-inspiring to watch someone of Dave's skill level and confidence ripping around on his home turf.

Although I’ve always felt I’ve had a reasonable grasp of composition in a photo, use of light has never come so naturally to me. Inspired by the work of other skiing photographers such as Jordan Manley and Sverre Hjørnevik, who both have incredibly good grasp of lighting, I knew that in order to progress and develop as a photographer it was something I had to consciously work on. As such I was particularly happy to pull off this shot of Tom Southworth skiing on Aonach Mor towards the end of a day. The sun was low in the sky and I knew that if I positioned myself well before Tom dropped in, then it would provide a good backlighting, catching the powder as he skied the steep entry. I find these kind of shots, where you have an idea or concept in your head which you then execute competently, incredibly rewarding to pull off.

March brought warmer weather and spring skiing conditions to Scotland. On a day skiing on Bidean nam Bian above Glen Coe, I captured this opportunistic image of Balasz Turi standing at the top of his line, highlighted against the background of a cloud which was sitting in the glen below. For me this shot really shows what Scottish backcountry skiing is all about - an optimistic mindset of just getting out there and enjoying the Highlands on skis, regardless of the sometimes lean and marginal conditions we’re often up against. This is something that anyone who skis regularly in Scotland should be able to relate to!

In each of the last few years, I’ve always had a trip to the Lyngen Alps in Norway’s arctic circle. This year we decided to chance our arm and head to the Lofoten Islands instead - more of a gamble on snow conditions, however arguably more stunning scenery. The gamble only half paid off, as we ended up spending a lot of the trip chasing snow conditions round the islands. Despite this, I was able to capture some of my favourite images of the year. The first I've chosen shows Al Todd and Niall McPherson battling full on winter conditions on the way up a gully on Trolldalen. I have pushed the limits of this file in editing somewhat in order to achieve the look it has, however I've found this is often necessary when shooting in poor light conditions in order to make an image pop and to give it interest.

The second is perhaps my favourite photo that I’ve captured during my photographic career so far, and an image that was recently recognised with an award at the Kendal Mountain Festival. A combination of pouring over conflicting weather forecasts and gambling on a break in the weather just in time for sunset, along with Fabian's charging ability on a pair of skis, resulted in an image which probably best conveys the direction I want to take my photography in.  That being adventure photography which also possesses high visual impact and artistic qualities.

Another highlight image from Lofoten was of Fabian hucking in front of a moody Lofoten backdrop. Again it's not technically perfect, having realised later I should have shot at a slightly faster shutter speed to freeze the motion, however the shot is still passable and it's something I've learnt from going forwards.

The below image I didn't end up sharing online at the time, although I eventually entered in the Kendal Mountain Festival competition where it finished second in its category.  It's fairly minimalistic compared to many of my photos, but it also has a strong storytelling element to it - something I'd like to build into my photography more. We were half way to the summit of Kistbergtinden when the wind picked up greatly. Taking the decision to head back down the mountain, we encountered a group of Norwegian skiers who had decided do similarly and turn for home. They had taken their dog out for the day's touring, however the dog was now struggling to make headway in the high winds. The owner easily scooped up the dog and proceeded to ski down the mountain, cradling it neatly in her arms. The photo managed to capture the feeling of the weather conditions at the time and shows off a particularly unusual skiing scene. I guess I like it because it's something different.

My final shot from Lofoten is one which shows just how beautiful these islands can be on a good day. After a trip of mixed snow conditions, we were finally rewarded with a dream descent of the south face of Himmeltinden, skiing all the way from the summit to near sea level, with a view of the other islands stretched out in front of us. It was easily one of the most memorable ski descents I've had in my life.

Back home and it was time to make the most of the spring conditions in Scotland, although Ben Nevis still had its full winter coat on. Two weekends based in the CIC Hut on the mountain's North Face, and I came away with two sets of photos which both made various national papers at the time. One of the best received was probably the photo below of Niall skiing past the ice which was still formed on the narrows of Number 5 Gully.

My second choice from those weekends is a shot of Pete Mackenzie taking a rather bold entry into Tower Gully. It shows that it's still possible to go out in claggy conditions with poor light and come away with good photos. The main interest in this image comes from the dynamic feel given by Pete's wind-up into his next jump turn.

With the ski season concluded, my next trip was to the Alps in June, and an fantastic opportunity to spend a week learning from Jon Griffith, widely regarded as one of the best mountain sports photographers in the business. In addition to learning a vast amount during the course, it was a brilliant week of great weather and good company, taking in a lot of routes and being worked pretty damn hard. A huge amount of focus was given to shooting on the fly, so maintaining the fast alpine-style pace that's needed in the Alps, whilst also capturing images on the move. I was also able to spend time working on improving compositional elements and also product photography - something which should hopefully come in handy this year. I'm very grateful to Jon for putting on such a great course, which I'd highly recommend to anyone interested if he does run it again. The below image is one of my standout shots from the week - you can't really go too far wrong with a composition like that!

Following the course, I spent a further few days in the Alps climbing with a friend from home, Jordan Tiernan, which gave me a good opportunity to put into further practice what I'd learned. This particular shot, taken just minutes before dawn whilst climbing on the Aiguille d'Argentiere, I was particularly pleased with on account of the tricky lighting conditions. I think it goes some way to conveying the feeling of what it's like climbing a mountain in the cold and dark before the sun rises, and gives an insight into the alpine climbing experience.

The back end of the year brought further adventures up to Skye, where I ended up reaching the last fifteen in the UK interviews for a 'Director of Toughness' job (look it up - it's far too ridiculous to explain here) with Columbia Sportswear. Unfortunately I missed out on the position, although it was great to get that far from nearly a thousand UK applicants, and the interview turned out to be a pretty fun day out. It did however give me the opportunity to get out and explore The Cuillins for the first time. Making the most of the great weather, I went for a run up on the ridge, taking in the Inaccessible Pinnacle as part of my route. It was here that I captured this shot of Jamie Bankhead on the final climb to the summit. It goes some way to showing off the scale of the mountains there and the amount of technical terrain on offer, far beyond anywhere else in the UK.

In October, with the continued aim to find more sports in which I can potentially hurt myself, I got into mountain biking. After being initially terrified (falling onto snow at 30mph seems like it would hurt far less than onto a tree), I started to see the fun side of it and even took the camera out to get a few shots.

With the good late autumn/early winter weather, I also found time to venture into film-making, turning out this video of Ollie Barker running the Aonach Eagach ridge. Having run the ridge just recently as part of the Glencoe Skyline, I don't know why the hell I wanted to go back quite so soon (particularly carrying a tonne of camera gear), but hey-ho. I've learnt that making films is a lot more challenging and time-consuming than shooting stills, and I'm a fair way from being able to produce professional quality work, however this film was starting to get towards the level I'd like to eventually reach.

My final image, I took just last week whilst skiing at Glencoe. It's been another slow, frustrating start to the Scottish winter, with flurries of snow quickly followed by milder temperatures and thaw, however we were in much the same position last year and I'm holding out confidence things will improve. The lifts weren't open, however myself and Gordon Pearson were able to get a few laps in by skinning through the resort. I wanted to play around a bit with longer shutter speeds (1/50s - 1/100s) and skiing close behind Gordon on his telemark skis in order to try and add some dynamism to the shots (with Gordon's figure staying as sharp as possible, whilst the ground around him was blurred with the movement down the hill). It turned out to be a test of both my skiing and my photography skills, and 95% of the shots I came away with were completely unusable, however in this one I achieved something of the effect I'd set out for. Again, rewarding to go out with a more creative concept in mind and successfully pull it off.

To round off this review I’d like to talk about the changes I've initiated in my life this year. If you’d said to me just under two years ago, when I made my first forays into mountain sports photography, that it would soon become one of my greatest passions, I would have struggled to take you seriously. However it quickly did, to the point where I found it one of the most rewarding things I’d ever done in life. 

In August of last year I took the decision to leave a good, stable job in the energy sector, with a regular income and good prospects for the future, to follow an uncertain career path, working from job-to-job as a mountain sports photographer. It felt like easily the biggest decision I’d had to make in my life, and it took me at least three months to pluck up the courage to finally make it. Yet, at the same time it was an easy one to make. I was beginning to gain confidence that my photos were good enough, and I also knew that if I didn’t at least give it a proper, committed go, then I’d spend the rest of my life wondering 'what if'. 

The initial plan was to spend time building my portfolio and building contacts, in order that perhaps in twelve months time, I’d be in a position to start bringing in regular work, however things have moved along much faster than expected. I already have a decent number of exciting projects to get stuck into this winter, with some fairly big clients. Things are definitely looking promising for the future (all we need is some snow!).

If you’ve read to the end of this (apologies - it turned into more of an epic than expected), then I want to thank you all for your support, whether you're people that I've had the pleasure of spending time in the mountains with, or people who have shared, liked or commented on my photos on social media, or simply appreciated them. Without all your support, there’s no way I’d have got as far as I have on this exciting rollercoaster ride of a journey.