# photography

Highland Weekend

# photography# travel

Last weekend, Claire and I went up to the Cairngorms for the express purpose of spending a weekend in a remote cottage curled up next to the fireplace. We played board games, ate pancakes, and drank tea and whisky.

Highland cottage
Our cozy cottage in the Cairngorms.

The cottage was down a one-kilometer driveway, hidden behind expansive sheep pastures and tucked into the edge of an oak forest.

The castle on Loch an Eilein
The castle on Loch an Eilein.

The drives up and back were stunning. On the way home, we stopped at Loch an Eilein, a loch with a sunken castle in the middle.

The main North-South highway in Scotland is a stunning and surprisingly quiet two-lane road that curves through the heart of the highlands. Coming from the busy freeways of North America, this feels like a slow scenic route. Nonetheless, on our way back we cut off the highway to take an even more scenic route, following winding one-track roads over hills and valleys.

The view down Glen Lyon
The view up Glen Lyon.

That took us through the idyllic Glen Lyon, which the poet Walter Scott described as the “longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland.” We stopped for tea and cake in the Glen before turning up the mountainside for one of my favorite drives in Scotland, through a pass between Ben Lawers and Meall nan Tarmachan, on a route that Google simply describes as “unnamed road.”

Ben Lawers Dam
Ben Lawers Dam surrounded by the Trossach Mountains.

That road winds up through into the misty and desolate mountain pass, where there is a feeling of complete solitude, like you’ve arrived at the end of the world.

We did parts of this drive once before, on our first trip to Scotland in 2018. It was so beautiful, it helped convince us to move to Scotland. That time, we stayed in a small cabin near Ben Lawers, and one night we went for dinner in the closest town, Killin.

Killin is at the end of a loch, and a river runs through the town. An old, narrow stone bridge crosses the river at a wide set of rapids, called the Falls of Falloch. When you get across the bridge, there’s a small inn, which has an unassuming pub. Inside the pub, there are a few wooden tables, and a large fireplace. In 2018, Claire and I had dinner in that pub, next to the fire. Claire had haggis, and I had fish and chips.

As we drove home last week, we talked about getting dinner at the pub again. We were tired and we wanted to get home, but we wanted to relive the happy memory. We decided that we would stop at the pub and — if they had a table — stop for a drink.

Killin was just as charming as I remembered, with the inn next to the bridge over the rapids. When we went into the pub, the server told us there were no tables available. After a long day of driving, I think Claire and I were actually a little relieved to know we would just keep driving and get home at a reasonable hour. But I looked around the pub, at the fire and the families having Sunday dinner, and I felt very happy to see it again. Most of the time I feel possessive of my happy memories — like I want to collect all of these experiences and keep them in my closet. But then, every once in a while, I’m just happy to remember that this charming thing exists. As I left the pub, I felt reassured. It’s still there. Something is right in the world.

What I've Learned about Composition in Photography

# photography# writing

I got a message from Carl, a friend from the climbing gym, asking if I have any advice about photography composition. In short, I feel really unqualified to give an answer. My practice of photography relies heavily on luck and intuition.

But, I’ve been attempting a more serious study of photography over the past year, which has included joining a local camera club and reading about photography. In particular, I’ve been reading Creative Photography, a 1984 reference book that I found at a charity shop. In the spirit of learning in public, I’m going to write down some of my functional understanding.

Before thinking about composition, there are two things that I hold as deeply important:

  1. Understand the exposure triangle

This is the basis of photography — even smartphone photography. You don’t need to understand it when you take your first pictures, but you’ll need to understand how it works in order to understand the mechanics of photography. The exposure triangle defines the rules of photography, even if you’re using a full-auto point-and-shoot or a smartphone.

  1. Keep a camera with you

The classic saying is: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Edward Steichen said it more incisively: “No photographer is as good as the simplest camera.”

I really believe this.To me, photography is about engaging with your subject and composing your image. Gear can help, but it can’t solve photography. The best advice I’ve received is to take photos often. That’s how you get better. And the easiest way to do that is to find a camera that makes you feel comfortable and bring it wherever you go. For me, that’s my Olympus Trip 35. I can always put it in my pocket when I run to the store.

Photographers often say that there are three aspects of photography:

  • Space
  • Light
  • Subject

(Rather than space, photographers tend to say “composition,” but I “space” fits better with how I understand it.)

Here’s how I understand these things:

Space

Space describes the area of the photo and how all of the elements of the photo relate to one another. The best way to learn how to work with space is to practice. Go outside and take photos of random objects, trying to arrange them in a way that makes the photo interesting. Take pictures often and you’ll develop a sense for arrangement.

Asymmetry

The first rule of space is to avoid symmetry. To me, symmetry creates a clean divide between objects that makes them feel separate.

A frosty landscape
An Enya sticker on a street sign
Symmetry can make a photo feel more bold.

A symmetrical photo can feel like two photos side by side. Asymmetry creates tension that pulls the objects together. That’s why photographers default to thirds in their composition.

Thirds

The “rule of thirds” says that compositions should be divided into thirds, or else objects should be placed at the thirds lines.

A signpost with frost on it
This signpost sits one-third from the right.

A man delivering flour
The sidewalk takes one-third of the photo and the truck takes up two-thirds.

A boy in an alley in Tanzania
You can create tension by pushing your subject to the edge of the photo or leaving large areas of negative space.

Practice taking photos with the rule of thirds to see how it feels. By default, I put my subject dead center in my photo. When I practice using thirds, I notice that (1) photography becomes more challenging and (2) my photos become more dynamic.

Lines

In photos, a series of dots (like buttons on a shirt), an edge (like a crease of fabric), or a ridge (like a railing) can create a line. The viewer’s eye will follow the line.

Sunlight on the sidewalk in the morning
These shadows push the gaze downwards.

An abandoned dock with fences
The fences and bushes guide the eye around a loose triangle.

Your goal as a photography is to use lines to engage the viewer. If your lines are too few, you will lose the viewer’s attention. If your lines are too many, you will confuse the viewer.

Allister and Jesse climbing a staircase
The railings brings the gaze to Allister and Jesse.

Strive for a balance where the lines guide the viewers eye around the photo. Most photographers try to engage the viewer with loose triangles.

A morning street scene in Paris
Roads converging at odd angles add energy to this photo.

Cities are built of rectangles — grid streets and box buildings. These make for boring photos. When I’m out walking, I look for unusual spaces, like a bend or a fork in the road, where I can find interesting shapes. If I can’t find that, I will take my photo at an angle to the street, to force the lines of the buildings into a triangular shape.

Intersections

An intersection breaks a line. This will create dynamism. Sometimes you want to avoid this. A line that intersects your subject’s head, neck, waist, or knees will break their body, creating a faint sense busyness (or in extreme cases dismemberment).

A man standing in the street
The lines of the curb and cars create unwanted busyness around the man’s head and neck.

Pay attention to where the lines of your photo are crossing each other and your subject.

Depth

Here, I’ll start to discuss gear. (This is where the exposure triangle become relevant.) Your aperture defines your depth of field — how blurry your background is. A wider aperture allows more light into your photo and creates a blurrier background. A tighter aperture allows less light into your photo and creates a sharper background.

A woman standing on the sidewalk
The sharp background situates this woman obviously in a neighborhood.

A blurrier background will be less distracting, so it will be easier to compose. It will also create a more arty or dreamy effect. The subject feels separate from their surroundings. This is why a shallow depth of field is popular in wedding photography: it makes composition easier and it puts all of the focus on the subject.

A man standing on the sidewalk
This extremely blurry background creates an surreal feeling that threatens to overwhelm the photo.

A sharper background can potentially produce a more interesting photo, because you can use the elements in the background to engage the viewer and create tension around your subject.

Breadth

You lens’s focal length determines the breadth of your photo. A 17mm lens is a fisheye; it creates a visibly warped image that can contain an entire room. A 200mm lens is a telephoto; it zooms in on a detail, like a bird in a tree. A zoom lens is one that allows you to change the angle, zooming from wide to narrow.

Your lens angle is probably the most profound variable in your camera gear. By widening or narrowing the field of view, you completely change your composition. A 50mm lens and a 70mm lens will produce very different photos of the same scene.

Personally, I mostly shoot with 40mm and 50mm lenses.

A couple
A 50mm lens narrows the focus on the subject.

50mm is the default lens that comes with most SLR cameras. I think it’s a beautiful angle because it just slightly constrains the photographer. 50mm forces me to commit to a specific subject, because most of the time it’s not really wide enough to capture a scene. But it’s still wide enough to include the subject’s surroundings and compose an interesting photo.

A couple crossing the street in Paris
A 40mm lens captures a wide scene.

40mm is a popular angle for street photography. It’s wide enough to capture an entire scene, like a group of people or a streetscape, but it still keeps the focus on the subject. I find that this challenges me to compose a photo that is harmonious.

A longer lens, like a 70mm, is very good for portrait photography, because you can get an intimate shot of your subject without putting the camera right in their face.

Light

Light — the interaction between energy and surfaces — determines how the objects in your image appear. Light creates color and shadows, which create photos.

Contrast

Your lines are created with contrast — either the contrast of one color against another, or the contrast of a bright area against a dark area. The implication of this is that your compositions will be very different if you’re shooting color film or black-and-white film.

Boxes of fruit on the ground
More boxes of fruit on the ground
The bright colors of the fruit disappear in these photos, leaving shapeless grey textures.

Empty boxes on the ground
The light and dark boxes contrast against each other and against the light and dark background.

A man walking down the sidewalk
Strong light creates drama in an otherwise boring picture.

In color, you can create dramatic effects with tiny elements.

A clothesline
The four red clothespins define the photo by contrasting against the green. With the wooden post, they create a triangle that guides the eye.

This is the strength of shooting in color: you can create compositions with subtle elements, like the blue of someone’s eyes or a fire hydrant on the street.

Use contrast where you want to grab attention. Put your subject against a contrasting background, or create tension between your subject and contrasting elements nearby.

If the light is drab and flat (like on cloudy days), rely on color for your contrast.

Shading

You don’t always want strong contrast. Sometimes you just want some gentle shading, like for portraits. Outside, you can get gentle light a few different ways:

  • filtered through light cloud cover
  • bouncing off of a building
  • angled by the earth’s tilt in the morning, evening, or winter

Gentle light will create shadows on the face that bring out features and wrinkles.

A man standing on the sidewalk
Indirect November light in Glasgow gently contours the man’s face.

A woman standing in the sun
Sun shining directly in this woman’s face removes all detail and forces her to squint.

The best way to find good light is to be prepared. Bring your camera with you wherever you go. Sometimes the sun breaks through and everything looks beautiful. The second-best way to find good light is to go out around dawn and dusk.

Personality

Film interprets light to produce a photograph (or a photographic negative). There is no objective “green.” Each film manufacture decides what they think green should look like. As a result, each film has its own unique quality and color profile.

Allister in a phone booth
This expired film is heavily de-saturated and tinted blue.

A man in a pedestrian tunnel
Kodak Gold is known for its lovely reds.

Beyond that, all films have a standardized level of sensitivity, called ISO (this is one of the points of the exposure triangle). ISO generally trades sensitivity for film grain. The more sensitive your film is, the grainier it will be. This used to be a much bigger concern. Today, you can find high quality film with very little grain, and most film photographers actually like film grain because it adds character.

Two young people on a bench
This crop reveals the grain of the film.

There is no correct film to use. Like a cheap camera, a cheap film can offer beautiful photos. But pay attention to the colors and quality of different films (including the difference between color film and black and white film) to see how the film affects the feeling of the photo.

Subject

You photo needs a subject, which could be a person, an object, or an empty space. It should be something that can catch the eye. Consider what the subject of your photo before you take your picture.

I’ve taken many photos of abandoned buildings and empty landscapes, which often feel unsatisfying. If your photo doesn’t have an obvious subject, you need to work a lot harder to create an emotional connection with the viewer.

Position

Once you’ve chosen your subject, explore how it is positioned relative to you and your surroundings. Make yourself uncomfortable: get down on the ground, climb up on a fence, get up close to your subject, stand in the street. Look at how different angles change the perception of your subject.

If your subject is a person, get comfortable telling them what to do. Tell them specifically what you want. “I want your hand on your face, but I don’t want it to block your mouth.” “I want this blue door directly behind you.”

Two men on the sidewalk
The two men create an unsteady balance.

Also think about the relationship between your subject and other objects in the photo. You can balance a photo and create tension with multiple elements.

This photo by Henri Cartier Bresson is one of my favorites. It should be a messy photo, but it’s incredibly harmonious. All of the characters in the photo play off of each other, making your eye wander.

Movement

The final point of the exposure triangle is shutter speed. A faster shutter speed demands more light, but the picture will be sharper. A slower shutter speed risks motion blur or camera shake.

Ferry
A slow shutter speed makes the passing water appear soft.

Depending on the picture, some motion blur might be desirable. If your subject is blurry, it can emphasize that they are moving. If your subject is sharp but other objects are blurry, it will emphasize that your subject is still.

Emotion

I want to take pictures that tell a story, and I want to do that by creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject. So, as a photographer, I try to have empathy with the people I’m photographing.

I try to remain relaxed when I take someone’s picture. I pay special attention to my voice. If I sound anxious, the person I’m photographing will pick up on it. I want the person I’m photographing to feel and look natural.

I try to be polite and friendly. I offer an explanation for why I want the picture. And then I try to move quickly to get the picture before the person gets stiff.


The most important things I’ve learned about photography since I got back into it is this: I do it for myself. Photographs are beautiful not because they capture a scene. Rather, they capture the photographer’s subjective impression of a scene. They put the viewer in the mind of the photographer, looking outward. Photography is a chance to share your eyes with the world. In that sense, it’s very intimate. Self-consciousness kills intimacy. The best photos will be the ones that you take for yourself. As you take pictures, think about what you care about, what scares you, what you love. Try to approach those emotions as you look through the lens. At least, that’s what I’m going to try to do.

# photography

I’m looking through photos from last year and appreciating that we had a lot of great times. It was a time of reuniting with friends after a long isolation.

Southside Portraits

# photography

Claire and I have decided to move to Italy this summer. I’m excited for the move, and I’m also quite sad to leave Glasgow. I think it’s a really special place. I have a strong feeling that I want to capture some of that specialness before I leave, so I’ve been more motivated to go outside and take pictures. Last week, I went out to take street portraits three times.

Street photography in the Scottish winter is difficult. The streetscapes are drab and ugly. Pedestrians are wearing hats and scarves and puffy jackets. And the light is quite muted. I needed a lot of patience to find good shots.

When I got my photos back from the lab, I had three pictures that I liked.

This was my first photo. I went for a photo walk in Govanhill. In street photography, the first photo is always the hardest. You have to put yourself in the mindset to approach strangers. I had just taken my camera out of my pocket when my eyes wandered past this guy, who looks like he could be a Culkin brother, waiting for the bus. I did a double take, and we made eye contact. I gestured with my camera, “Could I take your picture?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, completely relaxed.

I rushed and took a clumsy photo without taking the time to frame or focus. “Thanks!” I said. As I walked away, I was disappointed, sure that the photo would be completely blurry. When I saw the final product, I discovered that the focus is actually okay. It’s quite soft, but it almost feels a little dreamy.

A few days later I had almost the exact same experience. I went out to take pictures and saw this woman standing at a crosswalk. It was my first photo of the day, but she was really excited when I asked for her picture. When I pointed my camera at her, she assumed the most confident, direct post, looking straight into the camera. Again, I was nervous, and after I took the picture I was pretty sure it was out of focus.

Fifteen minutes later, I bumped into her again, and we chatted for a minute. She said that she doesn’t have Instagram, but she was so excited to see the picture that she would use her friends phone to look for it.

When I got the photo back, not only was it sharp, but the the colors were great and her pose was awesome.

Later that day, I was walking home when I saw this couple behind the grocery store. “We’ve got a reservation for fish and chips,” the man told me when I asked for their photo, before happily obliging.

I like their pink-beige-and-tan color scheme and their genuine smiles.

Hiking to a Hidden Valley

# travel# photography

Claire and I took our friend Leilani into the highlands on Saturday. Leilani said she wanted to see some dramatic Scottish landscapes, so we brought her to Glencoe.

Claire and Leilani stand on the mountainside

Glencoe is one of Scotland’s most famous landscapes. Paintings and photographs of this dramatic valley evoke a sense of desolate wildness. In truth, Glencoe is very accessible. One of Scotland’s main highways runs through the glen. The drive from Edinburgh to most of the West Coast takes you through Glencoe.

A path winds through Glencoe

But Scottish highways aren’t like Canadian highways. Most of them are two-land roads that meander through mountains and valleys. As soon as we exited the roadway toward the gorge that cuts through Glencoe, we lost sight of the road, and the sound of passing cars and trucks faded under the sound of rushing rapids.

Two of the mountain peak of Glencoe

Three imposing peaks, called the “Three Sisters,” form Glasgow’s most famous landmark. Our hike took us up between two of the three sisters, leading to a beautiful hidden valley.

Claire and Leilani on the path

We made a long, steady climb over rocky ground, following a rushing stream. Scotland offered trademark dreary weather, with low-lying clouds raveling and unraveling around the mountains and a steady drizzle dampening the ground under our feet.

Claire standing in the Hidden Valley

At the top of the path, a completely secluded valley opened ahead of us, cradled between the dramatic mountain cliffs. We stopped to drink from a mountain stream that fed cloud water directly into our hands.

Claire and Leilani heading back to the car

On the walk back down, we sat on the slope of the mountain for a picnic, taking in the full vista of Glencoe.

Five Lessons from the Ski Hill

Last week, I skied in the mountains for the first time in my life. My dad taught me to ski when I was five years old, and I went skiing a few times each year through my childhood and into adolescence.

The Prismic skiers at the top of the mountain.

I was thrilled to go on a ski trip in the alps for my company work retreat. We spent a Wednesday skiing down the side of a mountain opposite Mont Blanc. Maybe it was the views and the fresh air, or maybe it was the fear of death, but I thought about life all through the day.

Skiing in the mountains is intense — especially when you haven’t skied in five years. I learned five lessons about how to deal with high-pressure challenges.

Erik gathering speed.

1. Commit

I was convinced I was going to break a bone.

As an adult who used to know how to ski, it seemed inevitable. On my first run, I felt shaky. After one or two more runs, I remembered how to point my skis and tilt my weight correctly.

I shrugged, unsure, when the ski instructor asked me if I wanted more instruction. “I don’t think you need it,” he volunteered. “You’re a good skier.”

My confidence rose, which helped my technique. The ski instructor told me and my coworkers Levi and Erik to go off on our own. “Take the six-person chairlift,” he said.

Without knowing where we were going, we followed his advice. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain. The trail difficulties are green, blue, red, black. But our instructor had told us that on this hill the reds are more like blacks and the blacks are more like double blacks. We stared at signs pointing to red (black) and black (certain death).

With only one way down, we took the red trail that looked the friendliest. It was amazing. Winding down the mountain, we had panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Towards the bottom, we got to a final slope that was wide, steep, and icy. We all looked over the edge with apprehension. Levi dropped down and skillfully skied down. A moment later, Erik went.

Skiing offers an amazing feeling: there is only one way forward. The path is dangerous, but it’s also exciting and beautiful. If you choose your runs wisely, you will have the skill to handle everything you encounter. So it was as I stood alone at the top of this drop. I dropped in.

I felt myself struggle to slow down, grating my skis along the icy slope, trying to generate friction. I wobbled as I carved back and forth. My legs shook. I slipped around as I tried to turn. I felt unsteady and unsure.

Commit, I thought.

There’s only one way forward, and I can do it.

I pointed my skis downhill and leaned into the speed. As I let go of my fears, the hill glided past. My skis sliced through the powdery snow, sending plumes of powder to my sides. This is how to ski, I thought.

Commit, I reminded myself throughout the day. When life gets scary, remember what you’re doing and keep going.

Simon and Côme at lunch on the hill.

2. When you lose control, let go

The rest of the day was smooth. I felt confident. We paused for a Savoyard lunch on the mountainside and then kept skiing through the afternoon.

Toward the end of the day, with an hour left on the hill, we asked the instructor what trail to take. He pointed us to another advanced run at the top of the mountain. We rode up the chairlift, and then skied cross-country style for a while along the mountainside to find another lift, which took us up higher.

We found ourselves at the top of a beautiful, isolated, meandering run that wove along the mountainside, out of sight of the rest of the hill. It was our favorite run of the day. About a third of the way down, we got to the first tricky part — another steep and icy slope.

I went first.

About halfway down, I hit ice. I tried to slow down by turning uphill, but I couldn’t. My skies scraped onwards down the hill, while my body pulled backwards. I fell over, landing safely on my side — my first wipeout of the day.

I signaled to the group that I was fine and waved them onwards. One by one, they skied past me. I regained my confidence as I watched them safely navigate the slope. Then, with great care, I stood up and inched myself backwards to a spot where I had space to maneuver.

Okay, I thought. This is ice. I can’t stop myself. Maybe I can’t control exactly where I’m going. But I can get down this hill.

I pointed my skis downhill and shot downwards. I can slow down when I get to the bottom. For now, I just have to let go.

When you have no control, it’s futile to try. You’ll only lose balance. As I shot down the ice, I knew I had enough control to get safely down the slope. I knew that when I got to the end of the section I could slow down. That’s the key: loosen the grip, then tighten it again.

Levi on top of the mountain.

3. Persevere

Towards the end of the same run, we reached the final boss battle. It was a long, steep, narrow stretch. We were all nervous. Levi went first and wiped out halfway down. He landed like a pro, catching a stray ski. He gathered himself, got his ski back on, and got to the bottom.

Leo (who had joined us after lunch) and Erik followed, and all three of them gathered at the bottom, waiting for me.

I felt my heart race while I summoned all of my lessons from the day. Pay attention to your weight and your feet. Relax. Know you have the skill for this. Commit.

I dropped over the edge.

As the steep slope came into view in front of me, I saw a patch of dirt directly in my path. I panicked and pulled back, but it was too late. I already had speed. I lost control, my skis came out from under me, and I fell onto my side.

In retrospect, I know that if I had persevered through the brown patch, I would have been fine. When obstacles arise and you can’t stop, you have no choice but to forge onward.

But, that’s not what I did. And so I learned my next lesson.

4. When you fumble, regain control

It’s fine, I thought. I can just get up and keep going.

But I couldn’t. The slope was too steep and icy. I slid. I grabbed at the snow, but there was nothing to hold onto. I accelerated down the slope like a human toboggan.

I hoped to slow down, but I felt myself gaining speed. I rotated one way and then the other. I watched the blur of my coworkers zoom past me.

For a moment, I was at peace. This is fine, I thought. It’s easier than skiing down. But as the seconds ticked past and I keep sliding, I realized I was in trouble. I had no idea what direction I was going. I could go off a cliff or into a post. My ski could catch on something, breaking my leg.

I need to get back in control.

I hacked at the slope with my ski poles, which did nothing. I realized the only way to stop myself was with my skis. I clawed at the hill to orient myself so my feet were below me. As I slid, my skis collected snow like a plow, and finally I slowed to a stop.

I looked up and saw that I had slid about 100 meters. My coworkers were now far above me on the slope. I felt a little rattled, but I had no injuries.

I signaled to my coworkers that I was fine, and they took turns skiing down past me. Finally, I stood up, and skied down the rest of the hill. I was shaken and a little trembly, but I mustered the confidence to ski smoothly. It was the last run of the day.

Mabel carving the slope.

5. Check your priorities

I’m not a thrill seeker. But, I like a challenge, and I can be a little impulsive. On the other hand, I’m a little scared of heights and a little clumsy. Altogether, this made for a lot of reflection throughout the day. As I got tired in the afternoon, I asked myself, Is this worth it? How would I feel if I really hurt myself? How would Claire feel if something happened to me?

The experience reminded my that I like my life. I want to keep it safe.

I suspect that half the skill in skiing is knowing your limit. You practice so that you can tackle the routes you take, but you also choose the routes you know you can handle.

When you find yourself preparing for a high pressure situation, it’s worth asking: Is this the right place to be?

My day on the ski hill was perfect. I learned a lot, I challenged myself, and I had fun. But all day I was making choices. Do I have the energy for this? Am I paying attention? Am I ready for this run?

When you do take on the right challenge — when you commit, open up, push through, and get safely to the end of the run — it is wonderful.

Paris Wakes Up

# photography

Last week I went out for two beautiful, cold morning strolls in Paris. They were my first proper excursions with my new camera. On the first day, I left my hotel before sunrise and walked down to the Seine. The city was still quiet, as Parisians start the day late.

A couple walking across an intersection

This camera has a wider lens and a different focusing mechanism. The wider lens creates a challenge with composition. It captures a bigger frame, which means that details are smaller and there are more of them. Instead of photographing a subject, the camera captures a whole scene.

A woman crosses the street at Hôpital Saint-Louis
A woman crosses the street at Hôpital Saint-Louis.

A man unloads flour from a delivery truck
A man unloads flour from a delivery truck.

Firefighters on a morning run
The Paris pompiers (firefighters) take their morning run.

A cyclist rides down the quay of the Seine
A cyclist rides along the Seine.

An old man crossing a bridge in front of Notre Dame
An man crosses the Seine at Pont Marie.

A woman standing in an intersection.
A woman pauses to decide which direction to go.

A couple sitting on a bench
A young couple takes an early smoke break on the canal.

A man standing on a bridge over the canal
A man stops while crossing a footbridge over the canal.

By ten o’clock, the city is alive as everyone has finally left for work — including me. I put my camera away and make my way to the office.

New Olympus Trip 35

# photography

Christmas came early this year. Literally. Claire and I exchanged gifts at home in Glasgow before flying to Canada for the holidays, and I got a new camera.

This is the camera I’ve been using for the past year, the Revue SC-3:

A 35mm SLR camera sitting on a table

Technically, it belongs to Claire. She bought it at Mauerpark Flea Market in Berlin. It was cheap, and it’s fantastic.

This is the camera that Claire gave me for Christmas, an Olympus Trip 35:

A 35mm compact camera sitting on a table

This is a beautiful, small, well-built camera. It’s a compact camera, meaning it doesn’t have all of the settings of the first camera.

The camera automatically sets the shutter speed and aperture. Amazingly, it doesn’t need a battery to do so. It uses something called a “selenium cell,” which is still powering the auto exposure after many decades. The camera will also block you from taking a picture if the light is too low. You manage your focus with generic settings (portrait, two people, group shot, infinite).

This is not a precision instrument. It’s small, light, and effective. It’s really meant for street and travel photography, hence the name “Trip.”

I love the idea of a camera that I can throw in my backpack or my pocket to go out for some street shooting. I also really like that it’s less obtrusive than a clunky SLR, which makes it better for street photography.

I had a roll of film in the Revue. I took the above photo of the Olympus with the Revue, then transferred the film to the Olympus and took of a photo of the Revue. You can see some differences between the two.

With the Revue, I overexposed the photo to compensate for back-lighting, and I used a low depth of field to keep the focus on the camera.

With the Revue, I didn’t have that control. Due to the backlighting, the camera was a little underexposed. And, because I couldn’t control the aperture, the background is less blurry.

However, it’s still a great picture and the focus is quite sharp. Due to the latitude of my film, it’s no trouble to boost the exposure in editing to bring out more detail on the dark camera body.

Afterwards, I had a few shots left in the roll, so I finished them off on a walk around the neighborhood.

A woman standing in front of an empty yard

I was most worried about the focus, but most of my pictures came out sharp. This is in part because the camera defaults to a narrow aperture, making it ideal for outdoor photography, when you have lots of light and want a wide depth of field.

A man walking past a building

The nondescript camera definitely made it easier to photograph passersby. Most people didn’t seem to notice me.

A woman walking past some storefronts

The camera also has a 40mm lens, which captures a wider field of view than the 50mm I’ve been using with the Revue. This creates a challenge, because you can get more action in your shot, but you need to be more careful to avoid cluttering your composition.

A woman walking past an empty storefront

But a wider angle also means you get more environment, like these broad shopfronts.

Glasgow Frost

# photography

On Monday last week, a thick fog bank rolled in off the ocean just as the temperature snapped below zero. Ice immediately covered the streets, and frost clung to everything else.

The following morning I went out for a magic walk through a winter wonderland.

A woman standing in a frost-covered park

No snow had fallen, but a dusty white frost covered everything. The fog lingered for a couple of days, creating an ethereal mist.

Claire and I had gone to see The Snow Queen at the Royal Theatre Glasgow the Saturday prior, and that’s exactly how Glasgow felt — like an enchanted ice palace.

Bushes in the park covered in frost

A leafy plant coated in ice crystals

Everywhere, invisible cobwebs picked up frost crystals, turning into heavy strands of icy yarn.

A plant covered in frozen spiderwebs

A signpost covered in frozen spiderwebs

A fence covered in frozen spiderwebs

Queens Park is so-named because it is the battlefield where Mary, Queen of Scotland and pretender to the throne of England, fought her final battle against the soldiers of Elizabeth I. She was captured and spent the rest of her life in English prisons.

A sign on a fence, which reads 'The Battle of Langside was fought on this ground on 13th May 1568 between the forces of Mary Queen of Scots and the Regent Moray and marked the queen's final defeat in Scotland.'

I had never stopped to read this plaque before, but I really loved the look of it all decorated with frosty spiderwebs.

Dry Docks and Wetlands

# photography

On Tuesday, I took a detour on my lunch break. While biking from Glasgow’s Southside to the West End, I stopped at the derelict Govan Graving Docks.

The dry docks were constructed from hand-carved granite over thirty years, up to 1898. A graving dock is historically used for scraping, cleaning, painting, and tarring the hull of a ship, but these ones were built for ambitious repairs on the largest ships in the world.

A dry dock filled with water

The docks closed in 1988. Even after thirty years of abandonment, the granite basins stand strong. Today, they’re open as a sort of ad-hoc city park. There’s no signage for them, just an entryway through a metal fence behind some warehouses. The cobblestone quays are completely overgrown with weeds, bushes, and trees. In some places, it’s full forest.

A city skyline beyond an overgrown pier

Walking through the bushes, you feel like you’re wandering in a wetland, before you emerge and see the Glasgow skyline directly ahead.

A fence barricading an overgrown pier

There are a few barricades fencing off areas that are presumably dangerous, but even in the open areas I watched my footing. There were holes in the ground, slippery ledges into the river, unsteady wooden bridges, and broken guardrails.

A toppled guardrail on a wooden footbridge

It all feels a touch overwhelming. Men here created a monument, and nature has built another on top. Forests on the piers. Wetlands in the dry docks.

A sapling in the sun on an overgrown dock

One building remains on the site: the old pump house. Fences lazily protect it, but there’s a wide opening where a gate used to stand. Whoever maintains this place seems to think that upkeep is futile.

The pump house is an impressive stone building that no longer has a roof, windows, or doors. Between the tall stone walls with huge empty windows, it feels like a roman ruin.

Posters with abstract art hanging in an abandoned building

Inside the pump house, I discovered a treasure: a guerrilla art installation. An anonymous artist had strung up abstract calligraphies between the walls in the main hall. Despite Glasgow’s incessant rain, the papers were crisp and dry in the open air. The artist has just installed them within the last day.

I stood and stared for a long time, absorbing the feeling that I was in a temple. The impenetrable posters felt like hanging prayers — like a secret in a secret place. Who hung these? Who for?

Two swans sitting on a floating dock

Two swans flying over the River Clyde

After a while, I wandered out, passing some community garden plots and a pile of burnt garbage. In the river, two swans rested on a floating dock, heads tucked under their wings. They peaked up for a moment as two more swans flew overhead, traveling west from the city center toward the ocean.

A sign that says 'The Govan Wetlands' painted on scrapwood

Leaving, I paused to look at the sign at the entrance — hand-painted on scrap wood — announcing the Govan Wetlands. The sign stands in lieu of any official signage that might otherwise welcome visitors to a city park, a historic monument, or a future development site. For now, at least, the place has been reclaimed.

Strangers

# photography

On Sunday, I confronted one of my greatest fears: photographing strangers.

A woman in a leather jacket

The winter sunlight in Glasgow creates a permanent sunset feeling. It was midday, but the faint sunlight painted everything gold. I took the subway to the beautiful West End.

I planned to walk up Great Western Road — a straight line from one subway stop to another. Great Western Road is on top of a hill, so it gets good light. I would stay on the north side of the street, where the light would be stronger. As I walked up the street, I would stop oncoming pedestrians and ask to take their photos.

A couple standing on the sidewalk

The first photo was terrifying. “Excuse me, I’m a member of a camera club, and I’m learning street photography. Could I take your picture?” They were tickled and they obliged me. I forgot to set my exposure, and my framing was off. But I got a photo.

A man standing on the sidewalk

Right away, I felt more comfortable, and I started asking almost every person I passed. The first four or five people were all completely friendly. As I shot, I started getting a handle on the basics.

Two man standing on the sidewalk

Most people were quite business-like. As soon as I took a photo, they nodded and kept walking, leaving no room for re-shoots or chit-chat.

Eventually, I encountered a few people who said, No, but most people said Yes. A few said Thank you.

A man standing on the sidewalk in a soccer uniform, holding a soccer ball, looking at the camera

Most people didn’t pose much. This man barely stopped as I asked the question. When he realized what I wanted, he stopped, stood tall, and looked straight at the camera. Then he immediately kept walking.

A man with white hair standing in the street

This is one of my favorite photos from the day. This man seemed resigned when I asked. He made no attempt to pose, and casually looked around as I framed my photo. I waited for his gaze to fall into the distance.

A young woman standing in front of a greenhouse

This is Camila. For almost every photo, I stuck to my quick speech, Excuse me. Hi there. I’m a member of a camera club… When Camila walked past, I tried something more concise.

Can I take your picture?

Uh, what for?

Oh, sorry! I’m a member of a camera club…

I explained my project to Camila, and she asked some questions about it. It was one of the only actual conversations I had among twenty interactions with strangers.

The exchange confirmed my theory: people need to know why you’re taking the picture. Most people didn’t even seem to absorb my explanation, but the fact that I had one sufficed.

A couple standing in a park

This couple was really friendly, and they were the only ones who asked for my Instagram handle.

A man in a wool coat standing on the street

Great Western Road runs from the art school to the university. I figured that people in the university area would be a little more laid-back than the rest of the city. On my way home, I decided to keep photographing people in my own neighborhood. I was really happy to discover that people were just as welcoming.

An old couple standing in a doorway

This couple gave me my favorite couple of the day. They were very kind and encouraging.

A young man standing on a footbridge

I shot almost a full roll of film on strangers, and at the end of the day I felt great.

Traveling, I meet lots of new people. I also spend a lot of time feeling isolated. When each of these people let me photograph them, they gave me their trust. That feels like an uncommon and wonderful thing between strangers.

Overall, this was really challenging. Even after approaching a stranger on the street with an odd request, you still need to consider framing, exposure, facial expression, converging lines, your position relative to the subject, and the subject’s position relative to their surroundings. I made a lot of mistakes. But I learned a lot too.

Paris Light

# photography# travel

Paige jumping off a diving board, surrounded by my siblings

I don’t know where my family got the travel bug. There are six kids. Four of us have lived in France (separately), and all of us love to travel.

I think we were partly inspired by our parents. Both of them had formative experiences traveling in Europe. Mom did an exchange to a small town in Germany. Dad did the grape harvest in the south of France, then bummed around the Netherlands. Our family never had much money, but both of my parents saw value in travel, so they encouraged us on our own adventures.

Our oldest sibling, Paige, was the first to go abroad. She went on a trip to London as a teenager. I was in elementary school, and she brought back British candy that made England seem like a magical place.

When she graduated from high school, Paige went to Paris as an au pair. This time she returned not with candy, but with photos.

Photography was part of my upbringing. My mom was deft with her film camera, and she passed the practice to my sister, who started taking beautiful pictures as a teenager. Mom stuffed the bookshelf with albums of family photos. For a family that went through multiple fractures, those albums were one of the things that maintained our sense of wholeness.

Paige’s photos from Paris pushed the envelope. She took black-and-white pictures of people and places that were both artful and playful. She had an exhibition at the Khyber Art Gallery in Halifax of a series of photos of a clown on stilts. I remember that the photos used dramatic angles to make the clown look larger than life.

My family had a running debate about digital versus film. I used digital cameras as a teenager. But for Christmas when I was eighteen, my mom gave me an old film camera — an Olympus OM-1 with a 35-70mm zoom lens: a great kit for street photography.

A train bed filled with snow

The first photos I took were simple observations of my world: objects, cityscapes, friends.

A piece of plastic wrapped around a highway guardrail

Two months later, I left on my first trip. I’m the second oldest child, and I was the second to leave home. I went to Africa for six months and brought my new film camera.

Traveling alone in Africa was profound and also boring. I had the greatest adventures of my life, made wonderful friends, and discovered amazing places. But I was also a confused, tentative eighteen-year-old, far away from home without much money and with little to do. I would go outside and just walk around the block for fear of getting lost. So I took pictures.

A child running down an alleyway in Zanzibar

In 2008, you could still buy film and get it processed almost anywhere. I took hundreds of photos. I learned to photograph strangers. Five months into my trip, my light meter died, and I learned to guess my exposure.

a man on a boat in lake victoria

a child on a bus

Later that year, my 14-year-old brother, Allister, took his first trip: he came with my sister to meet me in Germany at the end of my Africa trip. We backpacked in Europe for a month. Allister had my digital camera, and my sister and I both had Olympus OMs.

me and Allister

We all traded cameras, taking pictures of each other and of fun things in the street.

Allister and Paige on swings

This photo is from a park in Berlin, near our hostel.

Ten years later, when my wife Claire and I moved to Berlin, we ended up in an apartment around the corner. I walked past this swing set all of the time.

Claire also grew up around photography, and so it has always been something we’ve shared through our whole relationship.

But, for a long time, I largely stopped taking pictures. I got busy with school, and then work. Last year, Claire encouraged me to get back to it. She told her dad to get me some film for Christmas, and I started taking pictures again.

A 'No fouling' street sign with a sticker that says 'Vote Enya' on it

As always, I was drawn to photograph funny things in the street. And sometimes those photos are great. But often they feel a little empty. I realized that a human makes a photo more interesting, so I started thinking about how to take pictures of people. I picked up a book on photography, I joined my local camera club, and I practiced.

In Glasgow, I still feel uncomfortable taking pictures in the street. People seem very suspect of the camera. But in Paris, it’s fine. They ignore the camera. So, each time I go to Paris for work, I go out for photo walks.

My sister has always had an uncanny ability to disappear behind the camera. She makes her subject feel comfortable, and gets spontaneous photos. In contrast, I always feel stiff and awkward, like I stick out. For me, taking pictures of strangers is a practice in balancing humility (be unimposing) and bravery (be bold).

A man arranging plants on the sidewalk

Here’s what I’ve tried:

I wear nondescript clothes, including a baseball hat. When I find a scene I like, I stand out of the way and set up my shot. I appear relaxed and stay relatively still, with my camera ready in front of my face. When a person comes into the frame, I casually raise the camera to my eye (if it’s not already there) and take the picture.

Bikes crossing an intersection

At this intersection, I noticed that the bike lane switched sides, so the bikers had to come diagonally across the intersection, creating diagonal movement across the scene. I stood behind a car on the edge of the intersection, positioned my camera, and waited for some cyclists to come through the frame.

A woman walking along the canal

Back in 2008, Paige, Allister, and I stayed in a loft apartment on the Canal St. Martin.

When Claire and I moved to Paris in March 2020, we wound up in an apartment at the other end of the canal. So during lockdown, that’s where we took our walks — up and down the landmark that welcomed me to Paris many years prior.

On one of my photo walks this past September, I walked down the canal. I noticed how nice the pedestrians looked as they walked through the light, next to the calm water. So I stopped with my camera, and waited for a the next approaching pedestrian to come through the patch of light.

I like taking pictures because they freeze these special places in time. But, on reflection, I recognize that it’s not the place that’s special — people make it so. Like in the photo of the swing set, and the canal: they move me because they connect me to people I love.

I think that’s what photography is. Each photograph reminds me of people: mom and her kids on vacation; my sister’s black and white pictures in Paris; my wife giving me tips for shooting portraits; and all of these anonymous passers-by, living their own lives. Each photo tells a story — about the photographer and the photographed. These photos make me feel connected, like those family albums. They foster a sense of wholeness.

Paris Shadows

# photography

a man walking on the sidewalk

Black and white photography searches for shapes. Colors appear grey, so texture only comes from contrast. Paris offers a lot of contrast.

long, soft shadows on a paris sidewalk

One morning in September, I went out for a walk with my camera before work. The morning light poured out of the side streets, casting dramatic shadows across the ground.

a man running on the sidewalk

I stopped for a while at the intersection of Rue de la Fontaine au Roi and Boulevard Jules Ferry. I like irregular intersections, because they create great scenes. Here, three streets converge at strange angles, creating a wide-open sidewalk, which on this morning was full of busy Parisians on headed to work.

I love the shot above, with the young man sprinting toward the camera, outlined by sunlight, briefcase in hand.

a squad of firefighters jogging in the streets

As I was ready to keep walking, a squad of firefighters came around the corner on their morning jog, heading directly into the sunlight, and I snapped this chaotic shot. I wish it was cleaner, but somehow I feel like it works: the trees framing the firefighters; the out-of-focus woman’s light face against the dark buildings; the light completely washing out the end of the street, like a portal to heaven. It feels like a little slice of life.

the shadow of a traffic light on a wall

I spent a while trying to capture a person walking past this funny shadow on the wall. In the end, I decided my first shot, devoid of people, was my favorite. The traffic light is talking to the tree.

a man walking in the street

This photo has two problems. It’s out of focus. And, I snapped about a half a second early — I wanted the man in the middle of the frame. But every time I scroll past it, it stops me. I think it’s the movement: left–right light–dark; the man walking with a heavy head, heavy bag, and maybe a heavy heart; the old, battered door weighing the photo down, tilting it to the left. It feels like a long march home.

A Trip to the Isle of Mull

# travel# photography

Last week, Claire and I took a trip to the Isle of Mull with our friend, Nelly. I met Nelly at my web development bootcamp in France. We both launched our web development careers at the same time in Paris, and Nelly and Claire became good friends while we lived there. Claire and I were thrilled for Nelly to visit Glasgow — and at the perfect time of year.

A cloudy, autumnal tree-covered landscape reflecting in the still waters of Loch Lomond

Mull is an island off the west coast of Scotland. Shortly after leaving Glasgow, we made an impromptu stop on the side of the road to take in the breathtaking site of Loch Lomond, shrowded in mist, covered in fall colors, reflected in the perfectly still water of the loch.

The dramatic landscape of Glencoe

After leaving Loch Lomond, we drove through one of Scotland’s most famous landscapes: Glencoe. We stopped at the lookout at the top of the glen, where I got this photo. The landscape feels sumptuous, with the rich orange heather covering the ground, and the pillowy clouds crowning the hills.

We took the long way around to Mull, around the stunning Morvern Peninsula. Nc’nean Distillery sits at the tip of the peninsula, in a beautiful and very remote woodland — so remote that most of the staff live at the disillery. So remote that when we realized we were down to a quarter tank of gas, we were genuinely unsure we would find a gas station. (We did. It was a small, unstaffed, community-run pump.)

A row of whisky barrels

Nc’nean is a new, sustainable, women-run distillery. Single-malt scotch whisky has three ingredients (water, yeast, and barley) and a very strict recipe that all whisky distilleries must follow. Within that recipe, Nc’nean experiments as much as they can. They use different types of yeast and produce alternative barley spirits. Theirs is a brave strategy in the old boys’ club that is the whisky world. In 2017, they sold their first bottle at auction — a youthful three-year-old scotch, which fetched £42,000.

A photo of the water from aboard a ferry

We ended the day with a sunset ferry to Mull, and then a short drive to the famous seaside town of Tobermory, where we had dinner at the pub.

The next day, we went for a hike on the shore. We were looking for otters, of which we saw none. But We did see many golden eagles.

A rugged road running between the ocean shore and rocky cliffs

After the hike, we followed the one-track road for the breathtaking two-hour drive around the island.

Sheep blocking a one-track road

A ram and two sheep blocking a one-track road

We got caught in many Scottish traffic jams.

The next morning we caught the ferry from Tobermory back to the Ardnamurchan Peninsula on the mainland. From the ferry landing it is a very long and winding but incredibly beautiful drive back to Glasgow. The Ardnamurchan Peninsula is one of the only areas of Scotland that the locals have started repopulating with native oak trees, replacing the conifers that have covered most of Scotland. As a result, Ardnamurchan is uniquely leafy and the fall colors are amazing.

Looking up at the canopy of an oak tree from under neath, with green, yellow, and orange leaves

We stopped for a walk in the oak forest, and I could have stayed forever.

The view through a forest of oak trees, with a moss covered ground

From there, it was a long, peaceful drive home. All three of us had the quiet contentment that comes from spending time in a beautiful place.

Allister and Jesse in Scotland

Last month, my brothers Allister and Jesse came to visit me in Scotland. They arrived on Friday, and on Sunday me and Claire and Jesse and Allister departed on a highland roadtrip.

We visited Stirling Castle, which is one of my favorite landmarks because it’s the historic seat of the Scottish monarchs. You can stand in the royal bedchambers. It astounds me to imagine what our Scottish ancestors would have thought about their descendents standing in King James’ bedroom.

Allister looking at the ceiling in Stirling Castle

My friend Francois gave me a box of long-expired Kodak Ultra film, which I loaded up for Allister and Jesse’s visit. I pushed the exposure two stops, which still feels a little dim, but the photos have a fun texture. Here’s Allister staring at the ceiling in Stirling Castle.

From there, we drove through beautiful Perthshire to Pitlochry, where we did a distillery tour at Blair Athol distillery.

Allister and Jesse outside the distillery

Here are Jesse and Allister outside of the distillery, which was a beautiful old ivy-covered building.

Jesse standing in the middle of the road

Allister standing in a red phone booth

We spent the night in Pitlochry at the youth hostel. In the evening, we walked to the neighboring town of Moulin for dinner at the pub. Allister tried haggis, neeps, and tatties, which he said was actually pretty good.

In the morning, we drove across the highlands.

Jesse holding Allister upside down

In the middle of the country, we stopped at a coffee shop. I switched to my digital camera because I knew I’d be taking lots of pictures. We had some pent-up energy from driving all day. So, when I asked the guys to pose for pictures, Jesse immediately picked up Allister and dangled him upside-down.

Allister and Jesse standing on Aonach Mor, with highlands in the background

On the West Coast of Scotland, we took the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola up the side of Aonach Mor, for rainy views over the highlands.

Allister and Jesse standing in front of the William Wallace memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis

Through the week, Claire and I showed the guys around Glasgow. Here’s Allister and Jesse at the Wallace Memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis.

Portrait of Allister

Portrait of Jesse

Here’s Allister, moments later, crossing the bridge from the Glasgow Necropolis to the Glasgow Cathedral — one of the oldest buildings in Glasgow, and the site of the original Christian settlement, and then Jesse outside of the cathedral.

Allister and Jesse climbing stairs

The weather rained for a lot of the week, but one day this beautiful golden light came out and I spent at least half a roll on it.

Jesse out of focus

I missed these guys the minute they were gone.

See the Stags of Glen Etive

# photography

A stag standing in a glen.

Kate and Clare from Scottish Sisters Photography say that Glen Etive is a prime spot for wildlife photography. At a talk at the Queens Park Camera Club on Thursday, they told a great story about stubmling across a stag in the glen.

So, I was keen to drive the glen yesterday on a highland roadtrip with my brothers Allister and Jesse and my wife Claire. The glen was more beautiful than I was expecting. As we entered, I said, “Keep your eyes out for deer,” not really expecting to see any.

A road running through a Scottish glen

Halfway down the glen, Allister shouted, “Doe! Doe!”

“Where!?” I asked, stepping on the brake.

As the car came to a stop, we rolled up alongside a stag who calmly watched us all gasp in amazement. The rest of his family — the doe and two fawns — were about ten meters away in a field. All of us grabbed our cameras, and I got this shot. Allister and Jesse both got videos of the stag making a loud groan.

After a while, the whole family wandered away together across the field.

Practice Street Photography

# photography

A man on a bicycle in Paris

Last month, I tried street photography for the first time. I like taking candid photos of people in the street.

People walking on a paris sidewalk at dusk

I was in Paris for most of August. No one seemed disturbed by my camera. Nonetheless, I struggled to point my lens at strangers in the street. It really challenged me to balance my confidence and my meekness. To stand in the street pointing a camera at a passer-by, you need to be bold. But you also need to seem unimposing and harmless.

Visit Arichonan

The ruins of a stone house in the forest.

Arichonan is an abandoned village on the West Coast of Scotland. In the 19th century, the landlord evicted the villagers — farmers — to rear sheep.

When the villagers protested, the police came and carried them away.

An abandoned house on a hillside.

Last month, we visited Arichonan. It was me, Claire, and our friend Erin.

Hidden down a path in the forest, the village overlooks a valley stretching miles out toward the ocean. The village itself sat on the slope, old stone walls criss-crossing the hill. The walls drew the outlines of store rooms, gardens, and cottages. A main house stood at the top of the village.

A fireplace heath in the ruin of an old house

The buildings appeared ancient, but some crisp details remained. A cracked cauldron sat on the ground in one house. An ornate iron hearth leaned against the wall in another.

It was just a few weeks prior when we hosted our friends Liam and Laura. Laura, a Canadian, had ancestors from Scotland. They moved to Canada in the 1800s when they were displaced from their land by sheep.

I thought about my own ancestors, who moved from Aberdeenshire to Canada around the same time. They were poor farmers, too.

According to historians, the farming way of life was difficult and leisurely in turn. Crofters, like my ancestors, rented a small farm from a landlord. Farm work was heavy in the harvest season. For the rest of the year, they had spare time for leisure and craftwork.

During the Industrial Revolution, demand for wool made shepherding more economically valuable than farming. The wealthy landlords who owned most of the countryside evicted their tenant farmers and let the farmland go fallow so they could graze sheep. The farmers were forced to find a new livelihood, farming on poorer land, working for wages in the cities, or making a new life over the ocean. This new flood of cheap labor provided the engine for Britain’s industrialization.

At the same time, in response to Scottish resistance, the British military was stamping out community and heritage in rural Scotland, destroying the traditional way of life.

The combination of military and capitalist subjugation drove Scots out of their traditional homelands, emptying the Scottish highlands. Countryside that was once full of farms and villages became desolate.

During the same period, Romantic painters discovered the dramatic mountains and desolate moors of Scotland. The Romantics popularized a new image of Scotland as a majestic, untamed wilderness — the image that persists today.

Flash-forward to the 1900s. Workers in the cities returned to the Scottish countryside — not to live, but for leisure. Sir Hugh Munro mapped Scotland’s mountains and made hiking the country’s national pastime. Landlords tried to ban hikers from their territory, but Scots fought back. You can’t own the land, they said. The people won, and access to the land became law in 2003.

When you ask a Scot what they do in their spare time, they’ll likely tell you they go hiking. Glasgow itself sits at the foot of the highlands, and you can see the hills from any high point in the city.

When you venture into the hills, it can feel like you’re completely alone.

But you’re not. And sooner or later you’ll walk past a crumbling fieldstone wall or the foundations of a farmhouse — reminders that this place wasn’t always empty.

Our friend Erin relaxing in a tree

After we got home, I Googled Arichonan to find out what happened to the villagers. After their revolt was quashed — like Laura’s ancestors and mine — they moved to Canada.

Signal Change

# photography

A collection of construction signs under an overpass.

Glasgow is under construction: a city of changing priorities. Always signaling the times.

A sign reads Changed Priorities Ahead

It’s a place of mixed emotions: Victorian tenements, brutalist high rises. Long summer days, endless winter blues. Wild highlands, industrial wastelands.

A highway sign rises above wild shubbery

It makes me happy and it makes me sad.

Eat Grass

# travel# photography

Cows on a hill by the beach.

In April, Claire and I went to Skye with our friends Liam and Laura.

A white calf grazing on a ridge near the ocean

We camped on a ridge overlooking a white-sand beach. Between the ridge and the beach was a pasture.

A white calf looking around a ridge near the ocean

In the evening, cows came out to graze. I took these photos at magic hour.

A herd of cows grazing along a steep hill over a white-sand beach

I love how the photos came out. They feel slightly psychellic, like nature photos from a 1970s textbook. It feels true to the moment: beautiful and surreal.

A cow striding through a pasture, looking straight at the camera

I took this photo and then my battery died. I climbed back up the ridge to our campsite and we watched the sun set.

We had a small fire, which we used to make a hearty stew and hot chocolate with whisky.

The sunset took forever, and the afterglow lasted until late in the night. When it was finally gone, the sky filled edge to edge with stars. Claire and I laid out for a while, staring up.

Sometimes I get vertigo when I stand close to an edge. Laying on the ground, staring at the celestial fresco on the infinite vaulted sky above, I felt the same feeling — that I might slip off the ground and fall into space.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023