Leaving his trusty Nikon behind, Jim Richardson returns to a favorite spot to photograph, the Scottish Highlands, with a brave new tool—the iPhone 5S.
I told them it would rain. And it did.
Before our National Geographic Adventures trip to Scotland ever left home I made that prediction to the hikers and I was right. But then predicting rain in Scotland is a pretty sure thing. I tried to make it sound like sport, something you shouldn’t miss on any true hike in the Highlands and Islands. That worked for a while until we were coming down from the Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye and it really drenched us. Guide David Russell, a true Scot, tried to tell us that since the rain was not coming at us horizontally, it wasn’t really rain. Nice try, David. Wet rats have no sense of humor, and neither did we.
For my part I tried to tell everyone that this dismal weather was a golden photographic opportunity. That any hike into the heart of Scotland without a bit of meteorological angst would be poor pudding. One can only stand so many clear days and blue skies before drama envy sets in. We got it up in the fog amidst the towering crags of the Storr, and we got it the next day when the Bella Jane took us from Elgol over to Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye. Magical stuff, in my book. Swirling gray mists wrapping down around us, the sun popping through in wee, feeble drabs, and the river cascading down over the glistening rocks, a brilliant white torrent.
I found it remarkable that my iPhone camera could capture as much of this as it did. Naturally, I chose my angles carefully, both for composition and lighting. Capable as it is, the iPhone is not a powerhouse DSLR that can conquer all situations. Comparing ultimate image quality across platforms is a fruitless exercise best left to the pixel peepers and their resolution charts.
But that wasn’t my goal. I set out on this trip hoping to find a fresh way of seeing a beloved place. I wanted to replace some of the paraphernalia with a spirit of adventure and experimentation. Most of all I was willing to accept that the images I got would be of the moment, not for the ages. Shooting for a National Geographic magazine assignment is a no-holds-barred exercise, sometimes taking years and every fiber of your being. This, by contrast, was a beautiful hike in the hills. All about being there in the moment, and sharing it in the moment. Ultimate technical image quality was less important than capturing the serendipity of travel.
For example: One morning we were waiting for the wee ferry over to Kerrera along with a man who had a pile of groceries in bags and boxes on the quay, along with several bags of beautiful flowers. “Is there a lodge or inn on the island?” I asked, pointing to the bouquets. “No,” he said, “they’re for the parrot sanctuary. The parrots love to eat them!” Who knew a little island like that would be home to a parrot orphanage?
Many images later (total take nearly 5,000 and about 50 posted to Instagram) what emerged for me was a better idea of my true purpose. People connected with the pictures of Scotland, liked the images, and some wrote touching comments. Some quibbled about technical details (“too much noise in the clouds”) and discovered that the images were (as I had predicted they would be) not earthshaking. Some got into the spirit of the trip conveyed in the pictures; for others image quality trumps everything and any flaw is a serious speed bump in the journey.
Most of all what was revealed to me in all the comments and discussions is that mobile phone photography is hot in the minds of a lot of people. That shouldn’t have surprised me, I’m sure, but nevertheless the scope is surprising and the direction it takes a bit unexpected. Perhaps it is simply a parallel universe; one universe clings to the established rules of photography while the iphoneography universe emerges from some aesthetic wormhole into a realm where the old rules simply don’t apply. This could well be more than one kind of camera replacing another. It may well be a dividing point in the development of photography. New times, new aesthetics, new motivations. New photography.
Or maybe it is just a return to the exhilarating spirit of photography that was unleashed more than a century ago when Kodak brought forth the first simple snapshot cameras. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
I’m back on assignment now—two days after I got back from Scotland I landed in Ukraine: serious photography about serious subjects again. Big cameras, lots of gear, many logistical nightmares, important pictures (I hope).
I find that the photographers I admire today seem to live effortlessly in several photographic worlds, making deeply considered photographs one moment and dashing off an image to Instagram or Twitter in the next moment. They share one commonality: The photograph is just a vessel for the message, and getting the message out is the ultimate goal.
With that reflection I’ll return now to memories of hiking the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and to the friends I made there. I must thank our two guides, Dave Picken and his assistant David Russell, great Scots who shared so much of their country with us. I’m an old hand in Scotland but they had surprises for me that made me glad.
Jim Richardson is a Kansas farm kid whose father loaned him a used camera and whose mother allowed him to use her kitchen as a printing darkroom. He has been photographing his rapidly expanding world ever since, often seeking out remote places and always searching for the extraordinary in the commonplace. One of his favorite locations is Scotland.