I recently returned from my second visit to the Aigas Field Centre, near Beauly, in the Highlands of Scotland. I first went in June 2015 and attended one of their Aigas wildlife weeks. This was great – I learnt a lot and saw some beautiful scenery, but it was Aigas itself that captured my heart, especially their little loch. Rising early (very early!) to watch the sunrise has stayed with me – the mist on the water, the birds awakening and the morning sun breaking through the trees and reflecting on the water.
I decided soon after leaving that I wanted more than anything to return. Aigas work closely with nature photographer Laurie Campbell. I’d done a one-day photo-day with Laurie a couple of years back at the S.O.C. in East Lothian and he’s a great teacher and photographer, therefore it seemed like a match made in heaven – a week at Aigas photographing and learning from one of the best in the field.
There were only three of us on the masterclass which opened up a lot of possibilities. Laurie had us all photographing in full manual mode – something I used to do, but had gotten a little lazy of late, choosing aperture or shutter-priority mode. What this meant though, was that most of my week’s photographs were perfectly exposed in-camera so editing time has been minimal.
Laurie showed us many techniques throughout the week leading by example. We used beanbags and tripods a lot. I admit I tend to take photographs hand-held, but especially for macro and low-light photography one or other of those pieces of kit makes a huge difference as shutter speeds can be lowered. These photographs of a pine marten and otter were both taken as the sun was going down, but because I used a beanbag I was able to attain relatively fast, well-exposed shots, although I did have to pump up the ISO. The other tip when photographing animals in low light is to wait for them to pause as any movement will blur with a slow shutter.
We did a fair amount of macro photography too – small flowers and mosses, butterflies, dragon and damselflies and a couple of accommodating common toads. I don’t particularly rate much of my macro work to date (although I do like the toad photos), but it’s something I intend to practice. I sold my macro lens to help cover the cost of the Nikkor 70-200 f2.8, but do have macro tubes which have the added benefit of working with any of my lenses as they fit between the camera body and lens (if you decide to buy, these are the Kenko tubes that still allow auto-focus). They are also stackable so you can use more than one at once to increase magnification. Laurie lent me his Canon 500d close-up (used for the small heath butterfly below) which screws onto the end of a lens (it doesn’t have to be a canon camera). It was impressive, producing good, sharp, results – I have one on order, and maybe I’ll replace my macro lens sometime too.
In order to photograph much of the wildlife a longer lens definitely helps. Before going on the masterclass I purchased the Tamron 150-600mm. I had the choice of this or the Sigma – researching them it seemed the Tamron was better at the longer focal distance which dictated my choice and I’m delighted with it. Even hand-held at 600mm I was able to take sharp photographs in awkward conditions. I also used this lens to photograph the otter pictured above.
A week at Aigas isn’t cheap (especially when you factor in all the equipment I bought before/after!), but it’s worth every penny. If you love wildlife, Scotland or magical places then I can’t recommend it enough. Laurie is inspiring to work with – he never stops looking for the perfect photograph – even on a quick comfort break we returned to the van to find him photographing a wild flower in the car park. I can also heartily recommend his books “Otters Return to The River” and “Highlands, Scotland’s Wild Heart“. The countdown has begun until I can return to Aigas once more (hopefully October!)…
For more photographs from my week at Aigas visit my flickr album.