With the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2017 coming up in April, I set myself the task of capturing some elusive key part of that spirit. But what was the spirit of Speyside? Was it the surly, contrary Scots character of myth? The patient, slow burning wisdom that Speysiders showed in their judgement? The frankly bizarre 10ft Dandy Lion we’d erected in our cherished civic centre? Well aside from Whisky (which was, let’s face it, a given in many respects) it was for me at least, the wildlife.
Perhaps I was a little too ambitious at first. I had visions of stags standing proudly astride a cask of Speyside’s finest malt, until I realised I had neither cask nor stag on any predictable basis. My opening move of setting up a bottle of whisky on a fine old rustic log and waiting for the regular traffic of Roe Deer and Red Squirrel to arrive was met with week-long disappointment. The traffic must have been jammed. All wasn’t lost though, because during this winter-long period of peanuts, pine combs and hopelessness, things I’d never even considered were determined, confronted, and by degrees at least, overcome.
What I learned during this early phase was the capacity that full and direct sunlight had for totally transforming the whisky bottle. Light in Speyside can be a bit of a scarce resource, especially in the straths and glens around Ben Aigan, which sees no shortage of cloud choking the slopes of the valley.
In poor light the bottle looked dark and unremarkable. There was no depth, and without depth the bottle wasn’t engaging or compelling, especially when set against a broad and equally dark pinewood landscape. No amount of altering the depth of field could rescue the shot any, and the dull reddish browns of the bottle merged un-impressively with the background.
But with just a shot of bright sunlight, the scene transformed immediately. The cyan flashes of sky between the trees provided an immediate lift and the sheer variety of red and golden streaks brought a staggering depth and vibrancy to the bottle. It was the visual equivalent of sticking your tongue in a pack of Space Dust or popping candy. Things began to tingle and fizz. It was all snap, crackle and pop. The Glenrothes bottle I had used as prop, was chosen not only on account of its beautifully compact shape, but for the deep mahogany midtones and golden highlights it possessed even in the dullest conditions. It had a complex composition in terms of how it tasted, and it was just as complex when it came to how it looked.
As every good whisky guide will tell you, adding a splash of water will generally open up a whisky, revealing the intricate workings of a dram’s flavour, helping you identify the constituent parts more easily. And it was much the same thing with light. Too much direct sunlight was a bit like rolling your tongue around your cask-strength whiskies in that it quickly overwhelmed the senses, and too little light made the whole thing pleasant but fairly unexceptional.
Under average light conditions The Glenrothes was a fairly stable, pale golden colour. The specimen bottle shape gave it a more complex quality than most, and the crystal clarity of the glass provided crisp, clean highlights, but as a subject in itself it simply wasn’t there yet.
With a little additional light however, the bottle came leaping to life. Which is more than can be said for the wildlife. I soon realised that it wasn’t enough to sit and hope; it was all down to preparation. First I would need to wait for the light, so dull, overcast days were out. This freed up time no end. The bottle stayed in position and gradually over the course of a week I began to appreciate the wonderful variations that even the gentlest shift in light could provide for the bottle. It became a living thing. It had dynamics.
Within hours I had a dozen or so shots that I was happy with. There was a space to the right of the bottle just waiting for the deer to arrive, but sadly, it remained unoccupied. Time was scarce and defeated, I dismantled the set , making do with the some long exposures of the bottle by Linn Falls and in the Spey and some arty stuff I played around with during a bonfire.
But as the youngest of three brothers, I knew that even defeat had its uses. I hadn’t conceded so many games of subbuteo and come away learning nothing; every defeat had its uses. In fact there was even a quote for it. A famous civil rights leader once said that every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time. My plan didn’t just contain seeds though, it contained nuts, ripe fruits and a more than a liberal sprinkling of pearl barley. If what they said was true then my performance was about to receive a boost.
Over the following weeks and months I realised that just as there had to be a way of predicting the weather, I would have to be able to predict the behaviour of the wildlife. I wasn’t a professional wildlife photographer, so I didn’t have the time to spend days, weeks and months waiting for the cast to arrive. It dawned on me that it would be easier to predict the behaviour of the squirrel rather than the deer. I knew what floated his boat, and this was nuts: peanuts, shelled nuts, walnuts. It was just a case of splitting the task into its component parts: get to know the behaviour of the squirrel: its routines, its feeding habits and the innumerable challenges of taking shots of active little critters doing active little things. And of course, generously providing him with his own weight in nuts.
A shutter speed of around 1/125 seemed to get the best results. It kept the unpredictable forest light, crisp and bright and kept camera shake down to a minimum. With just a 2-second delay on the self-timer and an excitable, anxious hand, camera shake can still occur, even with the best of intentions. And if I held out for bright, direct sunlight and shot out upwards toward the treeline, I could also make gains with an ISO 100/200, keeping noise down entirely. With only a 75/300mm zoom lens to rely on and owing in no small part to the cautious behaviour of the squirrel, you’ll appreciate that pretty much everything was shot at a strict and perhaps overextended 300mm. I even played around with wi-fi access and ‘remote live viewing shooting’ using my smartphone and the Canon app – and to be fair, when wi-fi was available and remained stable, this yielded the best results. I kept a couple of feet below his line of vision and a good 8-10 yards away, skulking behind a make-shift hide. He was a little wary at first, but over the weeks he got more confident. Yes, he was pretty unlikely to ever invite me back to his drey for a wee nightcap (especially as it was my failure to secure the string that saw him spin fairly inelegantly on the nut feeder for several minutes), but eventually he became more tolerant.
I removed the bottle entirely for the first shots. I’d erected something of a squirrel playground and initially it was case of gaining his trust with the nuts. First it was just placing peanuts in the birdfeeder. Then it progressed to leaving shelled nuts on the logs and branches I had set-up as the stage. Gradually I got to know his feeding times and feeding habits. I got to know his favourite perches and eventually I was able to predict with some degree of certainty where and when he would arrive in a certain frame. And when the squirrel (and his mate) was happy with his side of the bargain it was time to introduce the bottle. Placing shelled nuts in and around the crevices of the logs kept him occupied and sure enough, he too responded well to direct sunlight. Well, who in Scotland wouldn’t?
And that’s really all there was to it. The bottle didn’t phase him any, and who knows, maybe the notes of ripe fruits and nuts rising from the glass of Glenrothes had actually pacified him in some way – his spirit not so much broken as raised by the encounter. He didn’t even seem unduly phased by the random scraps of lichen, moss and Tesco’s frozen summer fruits I’d left none-too discreetly around the bottle.
There was no trick to any of it. The only trick was in taking time to get to know the subject in all its constituent parts, and you did this by first breaking it down into its constituent parts: understanding the variables within the dark forest backdrop, the advantages of being low and looking up, of being able to predict the activities of the squirrel and understanding the hugely complex variables of reflective surfaces like bottles.
And eventually I got the shot I was after. And I’m not just talking about the whisky.
Equipment & Props Used
Canon EOS 1300D (EFS 18-55mm/EF 75-300mm lenses)
Velbon EF-44 Tripod/Fat Face rucksack
The Glenrothes Select Reserve (Speyside Malt Whisky)
Glen Moray Tasting Glass
Conspicuous Pearl Barley
Summer Fruit Berries (Tesco)
Random scraps of pinewood mosses and lichen
Young Scots Pine (lost during a particularly arsy winter)
Shots by the Spey featured Walkers Shortbread
The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2017 takes place between 27th April – 1st May 2017. Tickets are online now. #dram17 on Twitter.
Events include a special Whisky School at Speyside’s Knockando Distillery, a VIP tasting session at Easter Elchies House at the Macallan Distillery (again in Speyside) and a Master Cooper Tour of cask (that’s barrel) producing Craigellachie Cooperage. Also in Speyside.
The Glenrothes Single Malt Whisky
Glen Moray Single Malt Whisky