2018 - The year of 'maybe this whole thing wasn't such a daft idea after all'

2018 felt a bit mad. Good mad, but mad all the same. It’s been the first year where I’ve started to realise that this slightly crazy, speculative career gamble might actually fly in the long run. More importantly however, it’s been a year of amazing trips with even more amazing people. As such I wanted to put together an end of year review piece, partly to share an insight into what goes on behind the scenes in my work, partly to share some photos I haven’t previously published, but also partly for my own benefit to have a record of what’s been a really fun year.

My work tends to operate on a seasonal basis, so I’m going to start from the beginning of winter 2017/18 and a day out shooting Greg Boswell and Guy Robertson attempting a hard new mixed line on Bidean nam Bian’s Church Door Buttress. As perhaps one of the strongest winter climbing partnerships in the business at the moment, it’s always a real privilege to get to photograph these two doing what they do best. The flip side of this is that I always feel a bit of pressure to capture photos which do justice to their exploits.

Conditions weren’t what most would consider ideal for photography, with flat light and poor visibility through most of the day. I’ve come to learn however that these are often the best conditions for taking good winter climbing photos, as more often than not you’re photographing subjects who’re climbing on shaded north facing crags, and as such high contrast lighting isn’t your friend. Still, I can remember walking off the hill that day and not being sure whether I had anything decent at all (although this is often the case when you’re so cold you can’t hold the camera still and trying to judge whether you’ve actually taken anything good on a tiny fogged up LCD screen). Fortunately though, the day was a success, with Guy and Greg successfully making it to the top of their new route (albeit having to climb the last scary overhanging pitch in the dark!) and from my point of view, coming away with a few decent shots of the climb.

Next up was a week out in the Alps working for NUCO Travel, a big player in the student snowsports holiday industry. I was shooting a mixture of some of the events they were running across a few different resorts, alongside getting some skiing shots they could use for marketing and on their social channels. The week coincided with some great early season snow conditions in the Alps, so it was all about the pow shots!

After a short break over Christmas and New Years it was back up to the Highlands, which were experiencing some fairly special snow conditions. One weekend in particular will live long in the memory for anyone who was lucky enough to be out…

In February I joined up with the talented folk over at Coldhouse to spend two weeks shooting a Scottish Skiing film for Pertex. In almost an exact microcosm of a full Scottish Ski season, the majority of the two weeks was actually spent inside, pouring over weather forecasts, watching storm cycles develop, and trying to anticipate where we might catch good snow conditions. In amongst all that I had some of the most memorable days I’ve spent on skis and we made a wicked little film about Scottish skiing. As director, Matt Pycroft put it “If you like skiing, or Scotland, or smiley, psyched children, or stormy weather, or strangely dedicated chartered accountants who moonlight as steep skiers, then you’ll bloody love this little movie.”

In addition to taking some photos and working as an assistant producer on the film, I also somehow ended up being persuaded to feature in it. Here’s a few photos I took during shooting and a link to the film in case you haven’t seen it already.

Next up, I was back out to the Alps for another week working for NUCO. This time round I was out for their Academy training week. It was great fun to get to photograph such a psyched team of strong young riders, all giving each other loads of encouragement through the week and helping each other to improve and progress. Here’s a few of highlight shots I’ve picked out from the week.

Next it was back to Scotland and another shoot with Coldhouse. This time we were doing the first of two shoots for Rab to mark the tenth anniversary of their iconic Microlight Jacket, which is one of their bestselling products. Rab were re-designing and re-releasing the jacket to mark the occasion and were looking for a series of photos and short films to celebrate the different people who used them. The first shoot focussed on Corin Smith, a fly-fishing guide who’s been doing important work exposing various shortcomings and downsides of the salmon farming industry in Scotland. For the shoot, we explored the adventurous side of Corin’s fishing, seeking out remote lochs, accessing them on foot or on skis, and making use of Scotland’s bothies for the some of the more far flung spots.

In amongst the various commercial shoots I worked on during the winter, I also enjoyed some quality days out on skis with friends. Special mentions must go to Dave Anderson, Scott Muir, Matt Pavitt and Philip Ebert who formed a formidable midweek team for highly successful missions on Stob Ghabhar, Sgòr Gaoith, and the backcountry around Glenshee. Not to mention a brilliant consecutive few days skiing in the Northwest Highlands, on which I managed to fill an entire separate blog post.

The tail end of winter brought something a bit different - Cut Media were producing some new content for GoApe and wanted a photographer to tag along and capture some stills to supplement the video. It definitely wasn’t my usual sort of work, but I always enjoy the challenge of shooting something slightly different, and it was undeniably a fun few days running around on their high ropes courses, zip-line treks, and offroad segways with a camera in my hand!

In mid-May to round off the winter a big group of us descended on the CIC Hut to ski the north facing gullies on Ben Nevis. Despite some pretty damp conditions, I was chuffed to get to ski both of the Castle Gullies, neither of which I’d skied before, in addition to my fourth (I think!) descent of the classic Tower Gully. I’ve taken plenty of skiing photos on the Ben before, so this time I opted instead to film some of the action from the weekend. For anyone who hasn’t skied on the north face of the Ben before, hopefully it gives a bit of a feel for what it’s all about (some years the weather isn’t totally shit too).

At the start of January I’d taken a phone call from Matt Pycroft at Coldhouse, whilst standing at the side of a busy ski slope in the 3 Valleys in France. “Hi Matt, what’s up?”, “Hi mate, okay so long story short we need a photographer/cameraman to join a six week long climbing expedition in the Himalayas. Only slight issue is we need to start booking VISA’s and permits today, so you need to let me know in the next half an hour if you can make it...”

Four months later, I found myself at the check-in desks of Manchester Airport , a good 10kg of camera equipment over the baggage limit, (having tried and hopelessly failed to blag my overweight bag onto the flight), indulging the rest of the team in some early expedition bonding through an age-old game of ‘who can fit five extra drone batteries in their hand luggage?’. After a bit of sleight of hand with the bags on the check-in scales, we were on our way to India.

I was to spend the next six weeks with Malcolm Bass, Paul Figg and Guy Buckingham in a remote region of the Garwhal Himalayas documenting their attempt to make the first ascent of Janhukot (6805m). I won’t go into too many specifics of what happened during the trip (it’s all in the film which you can watch below), but in short I couldn’t have asked for a better first expedition job. Brilliant company from Malcolm, Paul and Guy, great support from Matt and the team at Coldhouse through the whole process, and just a great all round experience.

Things I found challenging included taking photos/video at altitude (I’m usually okay with altitude, however my standard approach of running ahead of the group if I see a potential shot, as opposed to getting everyone to stop so I can set up is completely unsustainable in thin air and would more often than not leave me completely burst for the next hour or so). Things I enjoyed included being completely cut off from the digital world for over four weeks - an initial tough withdrawal period is quickly replaced by a realisation that life is way nicer and simpler without having to know what every man and his dog is up to all the time. I was incredibly grateful to both Pertex and the team at Coldhouse for having the faith in me to send me off on my own to both photograph and film the expedition - hopefully there will be many more to come!

A quick turnaround after the Himalayas (this was the stage of the year where I felt like I was constantly living out of duffel bags) and I was driving out to the Alps for a month or so. The trip began with the second part of the Rab Microlight shoot. This time we would be focussing on Julia Virat, a mountain guide based in Chamonix. We followed her during a days guiding on the Aiguilles d'Entrèves, getting a good mix of night time shots and also some nice sunrise shots high on the ridge itself. For the night shots I made use of headtorches to provide some low key atmospheric lighting (I’ve toyed with using big strobes for lighting before, but I generally find they’re too heavy and a bit of a faff, so not ideal for the fast and light style of shooting I try to employ).

My second big job in the Alps this summer was for Jöttnar and easily ended up being the craziest shoot I’ve worked on to date. The idea started fairly simply. We were to go out and climb a route with two of their athletes, Tim Howell and Willis Morris, capturing some gritty alpine imagery along the way. The whole thing grew arms and legs when Tim, a basejumper, suggested that he might be able to jump off a point half way up the route. In turn, Willis, a speed flyer, decided he would bring along a speedwing to fly down from the top. Then to top it all off, Jake Holland, a filmmaker and paraglider, joined the shoot and brought along a tandem wing, so it looked like we were all flying down! This shoot was definitely one of the hardest I’ve worked on, but also one of the most rewarding. Traversing the Arête du Diables is a fairly long day in itself. If you add in having to capture photos and video along the way (and set up the odd basejump), you really need to make sure you’re moving fast and not faffing at all. This style of shooting, where you’re having to balance moving quickly and safely alongside taking photos, is exactly the kind I get a kick off though, and I was chuffed that it all went as well as it possibly could have. You can read the full story of the day and watch Jake’s film here.

In September, after a month of climbing and working in the Chamonix area, I returned to the UK , where I had two more shoots with Coldhouse for Rab. Although these photos haven’t been used yet, Rab have very kindly given me permission to share a few of them in this post. The first was a running shoot around Glencoe with Greg Boswell, showcasing a few products being used in a fast and light scenario, moving across scrambly exposed terrain. Now Greg obviously isn’t best known as a runner, but fell running is an important component of his training for climbing hard winter routes, and his competency at this discipline really showed as he had no hesitation at moving fast over technical, exposed terrain.

The second shoot was down in Wales with Calum and Gabby Muskett. Rab were looking to get some product focussed imagery showcasing their Kinetic Plus jacket functioning well in damp conditions. We had two days set aside for the shoot so all we had to do was pray for some wet weather... Day one ended up being hopelessly dry, however fortunately enough, not long into day two the heavens opened and we ended up with some of the wettest conditions I think I’ve ever worked in, with points during the day where I genuinely couldn’t clear the water off my lens quick enough between firing off salvos of shots. For anyone wondering about the weatherproofing on the Sony A7III cameras, it survived this, which was about as devious a field test as you could ever come up with. I guess some people might find these sort of conditions a pain to work in, but I seem to almost enjoy it more when the weather gets a bit mental. You invariably end up with more dramatic photos and you feel like you’ve been put through the ringer to get them, which adds to the overall reward factor, or something like that anyway..

My last shoot in the UK for the year was up in Tiree with a few of the team at Tiso. It was more of a lifestyle kind of shoot than anything else, exploring the island in a campervan and taking a few shots of various jackets and pieces of kit along the way.

My final job of the year was out in Antarctica, shooting photos and video for both Jenny Davis and Richard Parks, who were both going through final preparations before setting off on separate expeditions to ski solo and unsupported from the coast to the south pole. It really was one of those once in a lifetime trips, so I’m incredibly grateful to both of them for bringing me along. I’ll likely do a separate post on this at some point, however in the meantime here’s a few teaser shots from the trip.

To round off the year I headed back to Scotland, where Winter was making a brief early appearance. One of my aims for this year is to resist the lure of the easy type-one fun you get from ski days and instead spend more time in the type-two fun zone, working on trying to get my winter climbing up to a higher standard. I made a decent start of this with three days up on Ben Nevis with my mate Luke, who’s currently working towards his prerequisites for the guides scheme. Whilst we were halfway up the classic ‘Gargoyle Wall’, Jamie Skelton and Matt Glen were also climbing the intimidating looking ‘Darth Vader’ on the other side of the gully. Although I wasn’t really out to take photos that day, I’d fortunately brought my camera with me and was in the right place at the right time to get a few shots of Jamie leading the crux. The shot below isn’t perfect by any means as it would’ve been good to get a cleaner perspective of the climber (rather than him being half hidden in the crack), however the combination of the rimed up rock, soft light, and amazing rock architecture on that part of the Ben makes it worth sharing I reckon.

I’m learning that an important part of progressing and improving your photography is learning to be your own biggest self-critic. It’s generally the case that if you share work on social media you only really ever get positive feedback, be it through ‘likes’ or the odd positive comment. It’s very rare that you’ll get any sort of constructive criticism or critique. As such it’s very easy to take all the positive feedback, rest on your laurels, and not work on improving at all. For me personally, this would be a surefire path to losing interest in what I do and burning out. I’ve therefore found it a useful exercise personally to try and recognise where my weaknesses are and work at improving them. I find the process of doing this adds to the challenge and should in theory help to make me a better all-round photographer.

Coming into 2018, I knew that my strengths lay with what I’ll refer to as the ‘hero’ type photos. These being the shots of a stunning sunrise, perhaps with a skier blasting through untracked pow, or alternatively a climber making a hard move with some scary exposure below them. I find these sort of shots are usually easy enough to get with a bit of good planning, good athletes, and an eye for composing a shot. At the start of the year I set out to try and improve both my storytelling and product photography. A great storytelling photo doesn’t necessarily have the same wow factor as a ‘hero’ shot, however in the world of social media, which seems to be an endlessly perpetuating stream of ‘hero’ shots, I find a good storytelling photo often stands out from the crowd. They can be much more interesting to look at, and often demonstrate a far better skill level from the photographer than yet another golden sunset shot. Although most ‘hero’ shots usually come easily with good planning, storytelling photos take a slightly different skillset. Constantly being aware and switched on, anticipation of what might be about to happen next, and fast reactions to capture the decisive moment, are all important skills that contribute to taking good storytelling photos. Storytelling photos are often slightly rough around the edges, perhaps not properly in focus or slightly blurred, however this often adds to their charm!

Whenever I’m trying to improve on a certain area of my photography, I always find it useful to look at other photographers work who are really strong in that area. In this case a great example of someone in the adventure sports field who does storytelling very well is Kelvin Trautman, whose photos excel at capturing the emotions of athletes when pushing themselves beyond their limits. I’ve also recently been introduced to the work of Ragnar Axelsson, whose work documenting the lives of people living in arctic regions is both beautiful and fascinating to look at, giving an insight into the harshness of living in an arctic environment.

The product photography overlaps slightly with both the hero shots and the storytelling photos, and is very important for much of the commercial work I do. Here I’m ultimately trying to show off a particular product and its features with some exciting or visually interesting imagery of the product being used in a real life situation. This can sometimes require a bit of direction of the athletes you’re working with to get them in the right place, however I try to be as light on instructions as possible (preferring to shoot in a mainly reportage style) as I tend to find it’s often easy to spot staged photos a mile off.

As I said, I’ve made a concerted effort to try and improve both these areas in my photography and hopefully some of that has come across in the images I’ve shared in this post. Looking back over the photos I’ve taken in last year, I realise that I’ve perhaps gone too far the other way and taken too few hero shots, so this year perhaps a good objective would be to redress the balance a bit!

Anyway I’d like to finish by showing my appreciation to all the clients who’ve trusted me to produce work for them, all the athletes who’ve tirelessly repeated moves or got up at some stupid time of the morning for one of my hair-brained early starts (my job is easy compared to what you all do), and also to all the friends who I’ve shared the simple pleasure of time in the mountains with. Without all of you I wouldn’t be lucky enough to be doing what I firmly believe is the best job in the world, so a massive thanks to all of you!