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Business Portraits (part 2)

warehouse company business portrait

Business Portrait shot for a company on location in their warehouse

Staying on Location

In my previous post about Business Portraits, I covered why they are important to your company, planning the photo shoot, the best time to hold it, dress code and background or location.

I hate the term “Head Shot” as the sort of photo you have on a passport or security ID is going to do nothing for your business – or for you. You want to have proper portraits that help tell a story about your people, your company and you.

albert dock business portrait company

Business Portrait taken in Albert Dock, Liverpool

If you are planning a location for the business portrait shoot, ideally you want one where there is the option of open air or under cover. In the example shown to the left, I photographed the Senior Partner in a firm of Merseyside-based accountants on the edge of the colonnades that form part of Albert Dock in Liverpool.

Over his shoulder are “The Three Graces” which are the famous three buildings on Liverpool’s Pier Head, that are a UNESCO World Heritage site. This accountancy firm was keen to be identified with Liverpool and anyone who knows Liverpool knows The Three Graces.

In a group shot for this firm, I placed the staff underneath the same colonnade, while I stood on a staircase nearby to get the shot. It was a typically windy day at Albert Dock and I was getting wet as I took these shots, but any photographer expects a little discomfort from time to time.

The important thing was – we got the photos in an environment that anyone who knows Liverpool would recognise immediately and no member of staff got wet. Getting wet is not a good start to the working day!

A good alternative is to use your business premises as the background – possibly using some of the company branding as part of the portrait.

If you want a more subtle effect, an experienced photographer will be able to achieve the blurred background effect you see in the photograph at the start of this post (known as “bokeh”.)

The photograph of the young business woman, at the beginning of this post, was taken using only natural light that was coming through a window in a warehouse and some overhead lighting.

No flashgun or studio flash was used for this shot. The blurred yellow shape you can see in the background is a fork lift truck. Without necessarily knowing what the shape is, you know this is an industrial environment.

This is one of my favourite business portraits for several reasons, not least because it won me an award from the Guild of Photographers. It is also the final photograph in the ten photographs that make up my landing page at www.wainmat.co.uk

Running the Shoot

Whilst a group photo shoot should be enjoyable, it does often bring out the inner child in most people. I always try to do individual photos of people on a strict 1:1 basis, so that they won’t be distracted by other members of staff.

Make sure there is somewhere that the other members of staff can sit or stand out of sight of the person who is having their business portrait taken.

As you now know that a shoot is going to take longer than you originally planned for, make sure that there are bottles of water, maybe some snacks for staff and a hand mirror so that ladies can do last-minute checks on make up, or men can comb their hair. Everyone becomes very self-conscious during a photo shoot like this.

If the photo shoot is outside and the weather is cold, bring a few wraps so that those who haven’t come in coats don’t get cold, or get them to wait in cars until they are called.

The whole process should be enjoyable for everyone. Apart from at a wedding, most people never have their photograph taken by a professional photographer during their lifetimes.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures is to see the reaction I get from people who I have photographed, when they see themselves in the final, finished image.

And yes, I have seen people in tears, when they see themselves or a loved one in a really good photograph. It makes me feel very privileged to do what I do.

Going Forwards

It’s a good idea to develop a company portrait style as it helps to convey a sense of team spirit to everyone who will view your business portraits.

Once you have worked out what the company portrait style is – stick to it. If you are not sure what style to go for because you’ve never done this exercise before, spend a little time looking in the “About Us” pages of other companies. Quite soon, you will see a style that really appeals and you can send the URL to your photographer so he or she knows the look you would like.

Alternatively, look in business publications for photographs that you like, cut them out and send them to your photographer.

A big advantage of having a clear company portrait style is that, when new members join your team, it’s not too difficult to get a photo of them that looks like it was taken at the same time as all the original team photos.

This is probably why many companies opt for the white background look but if you have a location you will always have access to, it won’t be difficult for your photographer to re-create the look.

Company Budget

I know it’s not something that is discussed in polite society, but let’s talk about money.

In your company, if all business portraits have, to date, been shot on a smart phone, you will probably get a surprise at what professional photographers charge for their services.

But once you have had business portraits shot by a professional, you will never go back. You and your staff will never see themselves in the same light again.

A professional photographer will work closely with you to plan the shoot, agree on a company style and take the photographs with equipment that costs a small fortune (my kit is insured for well over £20k.) Why so much? These are the tools of my trade and I believe that my clients deserve to be photographed with the best kit that I can buy.

Your photographer will then spend more time processing the photos than has been spent on the photo shoot. He or she will work with you and your team to pick the best images and possibly do some further processing of them. This is not a quick process.

In the past, the way that some photographers charged for their time and the right to use images was often less than transparent, verging on the arcane.

I give an upfront quotation that I stick to, as I know from my own experience of running companies that delivering projects on budget is everything.

My Approach

If I do a business portrait shoot and hear that just one member of staff isn’t happy with his or her photos, I will come back and re-shoot for no extra charge. Let’s remember this is also a team-building exercise and we want everyone to feel good about themselves.

I trust my clients and I want to build long-term relationships. When I come back in the future to shoot a company’s business portraits, I want to be greeted as a friend by those who remember me.

I keep archives of photographs that I have taken for companies, both on hard drives and online. If a newspaper needs a photo of someone I have photographed, I can send a link that they can download in seconds. It’s all part of the service.

Some Closing Thoughts

Banks and shareholders don’t lend to or invest in companies, they lend to or invest in people and they will want to know what you look like.

Last year, 10% of all the photographs that have ever been taken since photography began, were shot. Most of them were taken on smart phones and most of these were awful.

If you ever look at most Profile Photos on Facebook and other social media, almost all of them are pretty dreadful for reasons I won’t over-analyse here. Even senior management in large companies often have poor photos on social media.

So why not incentivise your team by offering an extra photo or two in a less formal style, as an add-on to the more formal business portrait shoot? It will add very little to the cost of your business portrait photo shoot.

Once your team have great business portraits, they certainly won’t want the traditional bad-lit, out of focus photo of themselves that they have been using on social media for the past few years.

Finally, for any of my social media contacts who want any advice about photography, just drop me a line – I’ll be happy to help. I’m at info@wainmat.co.uk

 

First photo taken with a Canon Eos 1Dx and a 85mm f1.2L II lens. Exposure 1/400 second at f2.8. ISO 400.

Second photo taken with a Canon Eos 1Dx and a Canon 24mm – 70mm f2.8L II lens at 70mm. Exposure 1/60 second at f5.6. ISO 800.

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Business Portraits (part 1)

business portrait group

Business Portrait group shot for Modus Wealth Management

 

Apart from the largest companies, who physically publish Annual Reports, the main requirement for new Business Portraits is normally when businesses and organisations – of all sizes – decide to update their websites.

The “About Us” section of a website is almost always the second most-read section of any website and that is where you will usually see a collection of Business Portraits.

In this section, the photograph of you will be viewed by people who could be thinking about:

  • applying for a job with your business
  • becoming a supplier to your business
  • becoming a customer
  • investing in your business
  • lending money to your business
  • or even offering you a new job

So, with all the above in mind, if you were thinking about allowing just five or ten minutes per person in your office for photos, think again, especially if you are wanting some group shots as well.

This is the first part of a two part guide that will help you get the best results out of a Business Portrait shoot. Even if a professional shoot isn’t in this year’s budget, there are enough practical tips here to dramatically improve how you could appear on your website and on social media.

Planning your Business Portrait Shoot

However long you initially think that a business portrait session is going to take, allow for double that time. A photographer will want to take a lot of photos of each person and the group. Groups and sports teams are always difficult to photograph because you can guarantee that there will always be a “blinker” amongst them.

When I’m photographing groups or sports teams, I normally shoot about 12 to 15 photographs of the same pose, knowing that at least one of them will have everyone looking at the camera, eyes wide open.

Getting all your staff together for a photo shoot can be a good team building exercise and most staff enjoy the process. Be aware, however, that some people really don’t like having their photo taken and may have a very poor self-image. If their only experience of having their photo taken is in a photo booth or via a smart phone, it’s no wonder they feel this way.

Take time to speak to your team and warn your photographer in advance if any members of staff seem genuinely nervous about having their photo taken. An experienced photographer will take the extra time needed to get these members of staff relaxed and will pose and light them in such a way that they all look good. You will be amazed what this can do for someone’s self-esteem.

Timing

The best time of the day for a business portrait shoot is first thing in the morning. Everyone looks at their best – no crumpled clothes or smudged make-up and no five o’clock shadow on the men. If you are shooting outdoors, the light is also better than in the middle of the day, when you will get dark shadows on peoples faces if it’s a sunny day.

Avoid school holiday time for group shots. Invariably, one of the team will be away. Also avoid the first few weeks of September if possible, as many of your staff will be sporting Mediterranean tans and shiny faces from having spent two weeks in the sun. It is possible to tone down a shiny face but, sadly, some photographers who do business portraits don’t bother to do the extra work required in post-processing to make people look their best. I do because I care about the people I photograph.

Dress Code

Make sure that your staff have a similar dress code. Decide in advance whether men should wear ties or not. Think about how formal or casual you want everyone to look and then make sure that everyone sticks to that code.

Discuss this with the team in advance and get everyone to describe what they plan on wearing. Then send the list over to your photographer in advance as he or she will be able to advise you on any potential problems.

If you do decide that men will be wearing ties, bring a couple of spare ties for the chap who turns up without one. Having a similar dress code helps project a “team image” in both the collection of individual photos and in the group shots.

Background / Location and Style

The plain white background is still seen in business portraits but I think it is a bit past its sell-by date and does little to help tell the story of you or your organisation.

I hate the phrase “Head Shot”. We all have to use them for passports and ID passes but a white background head and shoulders shot tells the viewer nothing about you or your business. It’s a missed opportunity.

Given the choice, I prefer to use an outdoor location whenever possible because people relax much more quickly outdoors. It’s also a good opportunity to give your business a sense of location by using well-known landmarks in your town or city. If I can’t use an outdoor location, then an indoor location with a view still works well.

The photograph at the beginning of this post was taken in Liverpool. It is a group shot of a team who formerly worked for one of the most prestigious banks in the UK and who set up their own firm called Modus Wealth Management

Coming from a banking background, they were only used to having photographs taken against a plain white background. Having discussed the “story” that they wanted to tell, we agreed that we would use what was obviously a city centre location, but without making it specifically Liverpool, as they have clients all over the country. We also discussed the image they wanted to convey of themselves – friendly and professional.

More examples of our Corporate and Commercial photography can be seen here.

Taken with a Canon Eos 1Dx and a Canon 24mm – 70mm f2.8L II lens at 47mm. Exposure 1/160 second at f5.6. ISO 200.

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Stumped

Canvas wrap of batsman stumped by a wicket keeper

You’re out!

The story behind a canvas wrap

Walk into the main lounge at Southport & Birkdale Sports Club and you’ll see a large canvas wrap of this photograph on the wall. It sits next to one of the doors that lead out onto the patio, which overlooks the cricket ground.

As Southport & Birkdale is often used as an “out ground” by Lancashire County Cricket Club, the lounge receives hundreds of visitors a year. The club is also a popular venue for events and this is the most commented on photo of the six that I have hanging around the main lounge.

My other five canvas wraps show senior cricket, mens hockey, ladies hockey, tennis and squash – all the sports that are played at Southport & Birkdale Sports Club.

So many people have told me that this photograph perfectly captures the spirit of junior cricket. Everyone who sees it smiles. It still makes me smile every time I see it.

This canvas wrap shows two Under 11 cricketers in action, with the Ormskirk wicket keeper stumping the Southport & Birkdale batsman. The fact that they both played wicket keeper for Lancashire CCC at their age level added to the rivalry and the noise they both made.

Junior Cricket

Until the club asked me to photograph some junior cricket, I don’t even remember watching a junior match here (and we’ve been members for 25 years.) Now, I probably prefer it to senior cricket. Junior cricketers play with such passion and determination; it is a pleasure to capture the action. They are ambitious and are not afraid to take risks.

Most junior cricket is played in the early evening, during the week. With Southport being on the west coast of England, it means we get lovely golden light on the ground as the sun starts to dip towards the Irish Sea. This means I can use some really high shutter speeds that freeze the action.

The camera I use for sports photography lets me fire the shutter at 12 frames a second, at speeds of up to 1/8,000 of a second, which is how I can freeze bales flying up in the air.

I used a monopod to give the camera extra stability and opened the 300 mm lens up to its maximum aperture of f2.8. This is how I get the out of focus background – an effect known as “bokeh”, which makes the two cricketers apparently pop out of the picture.

To get the most benefit out of a monopod, you need to stand with your legs at shoulder-width apart and, with the monopod at a slight angle forwards, lean in towards the camera. That way, you are effectively becoming two thirds of a tripod. It’s also a comfortable position to stand in for long periods of time.

When I sent Amazing Internet, my website designers, a large selection of my photographs for the landing page of my new website a few years ago, this was the photograph they chose as the very first. Even after my recent update of landing page photographs, it’s still the very first that you will see at www.wainmat.co.uk

This photograph won me a Silver Bar from The Guild of Photographers and both sets of parents have a replica of the canvas wrap. It is a photograph that has served me well.

More examples of our Sports and Events photography can be seen here

Equipment and Settings

Taken with a Canon Eos 1Dx and a Canon 300 mm f2.8L II lens on a Gitzo monopod. Exposure 1/6400 second at f2.8. ISO 200.

 

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The stories behind 10 photographs

The stories behind 10 photographs

The 10 photographs that now make up the landing page of our website

10 Photographs

I took advantage of some free time between Christmas and New Year to do some housekeeping on our website and to select 10 photographs that would represent the variety of work we undertake. It’s one of those jobs you keep putting off until you have to.

I’ve added several new photos to the online galleries and, with the exception of a favourite photo that I’ve retained, have changed all the photos on the landing page of www.wainmat.co.uk

Over the next couple of weeks or so, I will be writing about each photograph – the story behind it, how I took the photograph, the settings I used and so on. I will explain why I chose each photograph.

I began as a sports photographer, specialising in motor racing. It’s still a great love of mine but over the years, I have been doing more cricket and rugby. I will tell you the techniques and settings that I use.

I was taught portraiture by the top photography school in the country and this is an area of work where Liz and I really enjoy working together. I’ll describe how I approached three very different portrait shoots.

Another favourite is event photography where I can give you some tips that will deliver great results, even if you are only using a smartphone.

Product photography is another favourite – particularly food. I’ll show you how to make even a humble dish look great. I’ll then show you an idea for making your holiday photographs look very different to everyone else’s.

I’ll also give some hints as to how you can improve your own photography; it’s not all about having expensive kit.

I’ll begin with the story behind the two young cricketers – a photograph that has served me well since I took it and which you can see as a large canvas wrap print, hanging at Southport & Birkdale Sports Club.

#angusmatheson #wainmat #photography

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Smartphone or Camera?

smartphone and camera

Apple iPhone and Sony RX10 Mk II camera

 

I am often asked, with the huge improvements in the cameras fitted to smartphones, why anyone should buy a conventional camera?

Let’s start by talking about tiny dots

Most of the photographic work that I do these days is transferred to my clients on a USB drive or via an online gallery where they can download my photographs and add them to their own libraries.

Frequently, when I ask the client if they want the images only as 300 dpi or as both 72 dpi and 300 dpi, I’m met with silence. It seems that a lot of people don’t really understand what Dots per Inch, or DPI means, and are afraid to admit it.

Nobody should be afraid to ask for help. Having started doing my own printing 44 years ago, I’ve grown up with the transition from film to digital and I’m happy to advise anyone who finds a lot of camera and software “speak” a foreign language.

So for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding, this is a simple guide.

All digital images, whether they are photographs or graphics, are made up of thousands of tiny dots.

Smartphones, by default, record at 72 dpi and cameras normally record at 300 dpi.

It doesn’t sound like such a huge difference – but it is. 72 dpi means 72 dots per inch horizontally by 72 dots per inch vertically. So 72 dpi x 72 dpi gives you a total of 5,184 dots of information in a square inch.

300 dpi means 300 dots per inch horizontally by 300 dots per inch vertically. So 300 dpi x 300 dpi gives you a total of 90,000 dots of information in a square inch.

That’s more than 17 times as much information as in a square inch of a 72 dpi image.

So, why not plan on photographing everything at 300 dpi?

There are two reasons. One is the size of files that are generated at 300 dpi and the other is that, if an image is only going to be viewed on a computer screen, smartphone or tablet, you don’t need 300 dpi files.

Some web designers reckon that 100 dpi to 125 dpi is good for the latest “Retina” screens on mobile devices, but the files are still a fraction of the size of a 300 dpi image.

Take a look at the two photographs below. One has a resolution of 72 dpi and the other is 300 dpi. Can you tell which one is which?

MGA, MG, Birkdale, Southport, conventional camera

MG A at Birkdale Village Summer Fair

It’s unlikely you can because the screen on your computer, tablet or smartphone simply cannot make use of the extra information that is contained in a 300 dpi file.

The 300 dpi image at 7” x 5” has a file size on disk of 3.31 Mb. The 72 dpi image at 7” x 5” has a file size on disk of just 312 Kb, which is less than a tenth of the 300 dpi version.

300 dpi files are for printing. 300 dpi is also the limit for what the human eye can see in a print.

Of late, we have all got used to storage getting cheaper and cheaper. We’ve got used to free Wi-Fi and super fast broadband wherever we go. So we’ve all got a bit casual about file sizes.

We’ve forgotten about the days when portable storage was on 1.44 Mb floppy discs (which would hold just four of the above 72 dpi photos.) We’ve forgotten about dismal dial up modems that transferred data at glacial speeds and e-mail systems that would fall over if you tried to send anything other than the tiniest file attachment.

So why worry about file sizes in the modern era of computers and smart devices?

It used to be believed that, if a website landing page didn’t load within 10 seconds, the viewer would go elsewhere. With tablets and smartphones, people now expect pages to load instantly. If you have lots of un-optimised images on your website, that slow down pages from loading, you are going to lose your viewers.

Look around in any public place these days and you will see people frenetically scrolling down the screen of their tablets and smartphones. Everyone is in such a hurry to see what one of their thousand closest friends has got to say for themselves today!

Your own website analytics will tell you what percentage of your visitors are using mobile devices and you can be certain it will only be going up each year.

Smartphone or Camera?

If you are only need 72 dpi images, why not just use a smartphone all the time?

The built in cameras you find in the latest smartphones are so much better than they were even just a few years ago. With a little bit of care and a minute spent processing the image, you can get results that are more than acceptable for blog posts and social media.

But the images will still not be as good as those that have been shot on even a relatively cheap camera at 300 dpi and then dropped down to 72 dpi on a computer.

People think that, the more megapixels a smartphone camera has, the better the final result will be. It certainly helps but the quality of lens that you are shooting through is even more important and smartphones are still playing catch up.

I use an Apple iPhone 6 Plus. The current equivalent model is the 8 Plus, which costs £799.

In the photograph at the beginning of this article is what I call my “holiday camera”. It’s a Sony RX10 Mk II that can currently be bought for £810. It produces the most incredible images that are more than capable of being printed to over A3 size, thanks to its Zeiss lens and having one of the best camera sensors made. It is beautifully built and will last for very many years.

Cameras costing a fraction of what the Sony costs will still produce better photographs than a smartphone (for now at least) as that is what they have been designed to do.

If you are part of that generation who have never used conventional cameras before, find a friend with a conventional camera and borrow it for a weekend. It will open your eyes to another world.

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Day Four on Scotland’s North Coast 500 – Shieldaig to Inverness

shieldaig, inverness, nc500, scotland

Our route from Shieldaig to Inverness

My first post described our planning for our trip round the North Coast 500. My second post covered our first day, travelling from Inverness to Melvich. My third post covered our second day, travelling from Melvich to Lochinver and my most recent post described our trip from Lochinver to Shieldaig. After a short time heading South, we would spend most of today, travelling East back to Inverness.

Leaving Shieldaig, the following morning on the A896, we passed by the village of Kishorn, which I will cover in a separate blog post. Some 40 years ago, as part of my A Level Geography course, I wrote an article about the impact of the building of (what was then) the largest dry dock in Europe in this village. It was created to allow the building of the concrete oil rig called the Ninian Central Platform that was destined for the North Sea.

kishorn, village, Scotland, dock, oil rig

Kishorn, looking towards what was the largest dry dock in Europe when it was built in the 1970s

 

Well worth a visit on this road is the award-winning Kishorn Seafood Bar. It’s best to check their website before you go, as this is not open 12 months of the year.

 

kishorn, seafood, shellfish, NC500, scotland

Kishorn Seafood Bar

 

The A896 is a pretty tough road to drive on. It is a single track much of the way and is very twisty in places. By now, you will be thanking me for my advice to do the NC500 anti-clockwise.

If you are feeling particularly brave, you can do a detour round the coast via the village of Applecross. You will then go back to the A896 on the famous Bealach na Ba (the Pass of the Cattle.) This is a tightly winding single track road, which holds the record for the steepest ascent of any road in the UK. I’ve driven on it in the past and I would only recommend driving on it in the best of weather. There is an excellent, illustrated article about this road here.

Heading East to Inverness

Next, we arrived in Lochcarron. This is a lovely village on a sea loch, which means a lot to me. It’s where my maternal grandparents lived and where my mother, her brother and her sisters were born.

I have fond memories of Easter holidays spent at my grandfather’s house when I was a child. I remember fishing in the nearby burn (stream) and watching my grandfather feeding a robin that would come to his hand.

Both sets of my grandparents are buried in the Lochcarron Burial Ground, along with two sets of aunts and uncles, so we always stop off here.

On my maternal grandparents’ grave is a memorial to my mother’s older brother, Sgt Finlay MacRae, who is buried in Berlin. On his 13th mission as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber and just a few weeks after his 19th birthday, he was killed in action. At that point in the war, the life expectancy for RAF Bomber Command aircrew was just 3 missions.

lochcarron, nc500, scotland, east, burial ground

Lochcarron Burial Ground

 

From now on, we would be heading East. The route back to Inverness from Lochcarron is quite easy nowadays. It used to be mainly single track roads with passing places but is now a mixture of single track roads and dual track roads that are easy to navigate. We covered the final 77 miles of our journey in 2 hours, averaging 39 miles per hour. In total, we had covered  486 miles over 4 days.

 

loch carron, lochcarron, strathcarron, nc500, scotland, east

Loch Carron, looking towards Strathcarron

Culloden

Whilst the Culloden Battlefield isn’t on the NC500, it is just a few miles East of Inverness and, as Liz had never seen it, we called in before checking in to our hotel in Inverness.

If you are ever in this area, I can recommend a visit. The Visitor Centre is excellent and what is, in reality, a war grave for Scottish and English soldiers, is strangely beautiful.

Culloden, Scotland, 1746, bonnie prince charlie, jaacobite

Culloden

From top left hand corner, going clockwise:

The Visitors’ Centre

The Culloden Battlefield

Mass grave headstone

Memorial at the Culloden Battlefield

 

The NC500 – in summary

4 days and 3 nights spent on the greatest motoring adventure in the UK.

The North Coast 500 has been a hugely successful marketing exercise but it is not without its critics. Those who can benefit from the spike in tourist numbers are fans but those who are doing jobs that do not benefit from the increase in tourism are highly critical of the increase in traffic and the congestion this creates. So don’t forget to let locals go past on single-track roads. You are on holiday; they are trying to do their jobs.

As I previously mentioned, the tourism infrastructure lags behind the demand for hotel rooms, bed and breakfasts and campsites. But I have no doubt that this demand will be filled by the entrepreneurs who have been drawn to this area.

In the years to come, this route is only going to get busier and busier. I doubt if there will be many improvements in the quality of the roads that make up this route – and that will be part of the continuing appeal of the NC500. It has its challenges and when you have completed the trip, you do feel that you have achieved something.

My advice

1. Visit the NC500 it before it gets too busy.

2. Travel round the NC500 via the anti-clockwise route. We did the trip in 4 days and with 3 overnight stops but there is more than enough to see and do on this route to make it a week long trip.

3. Use a proper camera, rather than use a smart phone. Digital cameras can now be bought for very reasonable prices and will give you archivable, printable memories for many years to come.

For my work as a photographer, I normally use a Canon Eos 5D Mk III and a Canon Eos 1Dx with a battery of lenses. On this trip, I used just a single Sony RX 10 Mk II, which has a fixed Zeiss 24mm – 200mm f2.8 zoom lens. It is the perfect camera for trips like this but there are much cheaper cameras available if the photos are just for yourselves.

All my photos of the North Coast 500 can be seen at www.angus-matheson.co.uk/nc500 and I am happy to answer questions from any reader who is thinking about planning their own adventure.

 

liz, rosie, culloden, westie, scotland

Liz and Rosie at Culloden

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Day Three on Scotland’s North Coast 500 – Lochinver to Shieldaig

south, nc500, scotland,

Our route from Lochinver to Shieldaig via Gairloch

In my first post, I wrote about our preparations for this journey. In my second post, I wrote about our first day, going from Inverness to Melvich. In my most recent post, I wrote about our second day, travelling from Melvich to Lochinver. Today we travel South from Lochinver, down the coast to Shieldaig.

Heading South

After a night in Lochinver, we travelled on single track roads that are a real test of your driving skills, down to Ullapool, which is on the coast.

This was the final stopping off point for the Russian Convoys during WW2. You can still see the fuel tanks set into the hillsides.

Officially, the Convoys were “dry” – no alcohol was allowed on board. However, some enterprising locals had other ideas and distilled their own whisky. My father tried a glass during the war and he told me it was highly potent! An uncle of mine was a GP in this area and he was periodically called out to tend to patients “who had that upset tummy he gets from time to time.” Even today, not all the distilleries in the Highlands have visitors’ centres…

NC500, coast, Ullapool, road, Scotland, South

The A832 road. Note the snow poles.

South of Ullapool we turned onto the two lane A832, which took us along the side of Little Loch Broom and then around the coast. Many stretches of this road have snow poles on either side, so you can navigate after there has been a heavy snowfall. These are quite common in this part of Scotland.

 

South, loch, broom, A832, NC500

On the A832 looking back to Loch Broom

 

Further South

Near to Inverewe Gardens, we had our first proper encounter with Highland Midges. September is the worst month for them and they have to be the most vicious little beasties I have ever come across. Don’t come to the Highlands without Midge repellent. Visit Smidgeup.com to order repellent and get updates on Midge activity in the Highlands.

The scenery on the west coast is dramatic, with steep-sided mountains, covered in low cloud and fast running rivers feeding little lochs. Visitors are advised not to use passing places as temporary car parks, so that they can take photographs.

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West Coast Mountains

Passing places serve two functions (a) to allow traffic coming in the opposite direction to go through and (b) to allow faster traffic behind you to overtake. With regard to the latter function, visitors should avoid holding up locals, whose knowledge of these roads means that they will always be quicker than you are, whatever car or van they are driving. Passing places are marked with white diamond shaped signs, many of which have been used for target practice by local shooters.

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Passing Place. Inset – note the bullet holes.

 

We called in to Gairloch, where two sets of aunts and uncles used to live. I have fond memories of this village from holidays I spent here. My Uncle Hamish was the GP for this area and my Uncle Hugh used to drag me round the 9 hole Gairloch Golf Course, in the hope of turning me into a golfer.

Shieldaig

Our next overnight stop was in the village of Shieldaig, which often appears in the list of the prettiest villages in the UK.

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Shieldaig Village, Wester Ross, Scotland

We stayed in the Tigh an Eilean Hotel, which belonged to my paternal grandparents after WW2, along with the village Post Office and I have cousins who live in the village. This part of Scotland is famous for the quality of its locally caught shellfish and fish which feature heavily on the hotel’s menus.

The village name is a Viking word meaning “Loch of the Herring.” The waters on the West coast of Scotland are some of the purist in the world and most of the locally-caught shellfish are exported overnight to Spain, where they fetch the best prices. There is a display board in the village entitled “Wise Hunters”, which commemorates the local fishermens’ careful approach to conservation. On this board is a photograph of one of the fishermen, my cousin John MacGregor and the “escape hatch” that he designed to allow smaller langoustine prawns to escape. For this invention, he was given a conservation award by HRH Prince Charles and he also featured in one of Rick Stein’s “Food Heroes” programmes.

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“Wise Hunters” display in Shieldaig village, Wester Ross

We highly recommend The Loch Torridon Smokehouse for their smoked salmon and they offer a mail order service. I can’t think of any smoked salmon that I’ve tasted that is better than this.

Facing the village is Shieldaig Island, which is now a nature reserve. There is a heronry on the island and enormous Sea Eagles nest here. You can see them from the road.

 

shieldaig, Scotland, South, NC500, village, wester, ross

Shieldaig Island

On our third day on the NC500, we had travelled 129 miles at an average speed of 37 miles an hour. A relatively easy drive but I knew that tomorrow, we would face one of the toughest roads in the country.

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Day Two on Scotland’s North Coast 500 – Melvich to Lochinver

NC500, Scotland

Our route from Melvich to Lochinver

Heading for the West Coast

In my first post, I wrote about our preparations for this trip.  In my second post, I wrote about our first day on the North Coast 500, which ended with us turning West at John O’Groats and driving along the top of Scotland. In this post, I will describe our  journey from Melvich to Lochinver, with a detour to Stoer in Sutherland on the West coast of Sutherland.

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Highland Rainbow

 

We continued to head West on the A836 through terrain that was much more rugged. Heavy clouds were overhead and we saw rainbows every day of our trip. We were still on quick roads on this part of the journey and were making good progress.

Tongue and Loch Eriboll

In the village of Tongue, we switched to the A838, which gave us an excellent view of the ruins of Castle Varrich, which is believed to be a thousand years old.

 

castle, varrich, tongue, kyle, Scotland, West

Castle Varrich

The causeway and bridge over the Kyle of Tongue were built in 1971 to replace a ferry or a 10 mile drive on a single track road.

It was in the Kyle of Tongue in 1746 that two Royal Navy ships stopped a Jacobite ship from landing French gold that was intended for Bonnie Prince Charlie. Some historians believe this this had a significant impact on his campaign to claim back the throne.

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The Causeway and Bridge over the Kyle of Tongue

Some years ago, a late uncle of mine was working as a GP locum in this village. He had graduated from Edinburgh University in 1948 and was one of the first graduates to join the newly created National Health Service.

The Mail on Sunday decided to run a couple of articles, tracing what had happened to “the class of 48”. They sent a photographer to take some pictures of him. Having got the “proper” photos, the photographer suggested that – just for fun – he should take one of my uncle next to the sign for Tongue, with his tongue sticking out. This was only going to be for the family. Of course.

Guess which photo The Mail on Sunday used? My uncle had a great sense of humour and thought it was really funny.

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The causeway across the Kyle of Tongue

As we headed over to the west coast, the roads became twistier and, as we travelled down the eastern side of Loch Eriboll, the road ahead became a single track with passing places. Traffic was quite light and we had no delays.

Loch Eriboll is a sea loch that is almost 10 miles long. During World War 2, the Royal Navy used it as a deep water anchorage. It enjoys much calmer weather than in the nearby seas around the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath.

 

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Ard Neackie in Loch Eriboll, a former ferry terminus

In May 1945, the surviving 33 U Boats of the German Kreigsmarine came in from the Atlantic and surrendered to the Royal Navy in Loch Eriboll. The majority of them were scuttled in the North Atlantic as part of Operation Deadlight.

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Loch Eriboll, looking North

On the way between Loch Eriboll and Durness, we stopped to look at the beach at Ceannabeinne and saw a memorial to a very sad time in the history of the Scottish Highlands – the Highland Clearances.  All across the Highlands of Scotland, you can see the ruins of cottages that were abandoned when the families were forcibly evicted to make way for sheep. It is one of the darker chapters in this country’s history that has had little coverage in the history books. All that remains of the village is an empty white cottage that used to be the school house.

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Beach and Information board at Ceannabeinne

 

Heading for the West Coast

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A Lochan in Sutherland

A few miles after Durness, the road became two lanes again and, at Laxford Bridge, we turned onto the A894, which would eventually take us to the West coast at Scourie. On the way, we had some incredible views. We stopped by a “Lochan” (a small loch) that was framed by a menacing sky. Not far after, I stopped to take some photos of the beautiful Loch Glendu and the Glendu Forest.

This is an area of dramatic changes in scenery; remote, wild and beautiful in equal measure. I can think of nowhere else in the UK that you can see such contrasts in scenery in such a short space of time.

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Loch Glendu and the Glendu Forest, Sutherland

 

In 1984, a year after I did this trip on my own, a bridge was opened at Kylescu by HM Queen Elizabeth II, replacing the free ferry service, though you can still see one of the old ferry boats parked up at the side of Loch Gleann Dubh. Perhaps this was the one that I travelled on in 1983?

Kylescku, Sutherland, Scotland, NC500

Kylescku, Sutherland, Scotland

The bridge has won awards for its design and there is a car park which gives you a good vantage point to take photos of the bridge. On one side of the car park is a memorial to the crews of the X-Craft miniature submarines, who, during World War II, trained in this area.

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Memorial to the X Craft submariners, Kylescu, Scotland

Nearby is the waterfall Eas a’ Chual Aluinn (waterfall of the beautiful tresses) which is the highest waterfall in Britain. With a sheer drop of 658 feet / 200 metres, when it is in full flow, it is three times the height of Niagra Falls.

The Kylescu Bridge, Sutherland, Scotland

The Kylescu Bridge, Sutherland, Scotland

 

 

A short detour

Instead of staying on the A894, which would take us to Lochinver via Loch Assynt, we took the single track B869 out to the tiny village of Stoer, where my father was born in 1925. I have a family tree that goes back to 1715 and which confirms that my “Sept” of the Matheson Clan came from Assynt.

Looking out to the Atlantic from Drumbeg Viewpoint, Sutherland, Scotland

Drumbeg Viewpoint, Sutherland

I remember spending a holiday here as a very young child in a hamlet called Achnacarnin. The house we stayed in was lit by oil lamps as the hamlet did not have electricity and we drew fresh water from a well. Things are a bit more civilised nowadays in this part of Scotland.

Looking out to the Atlantic from Drumbeg Viewpoint, Sutherland, Scotland

Looking out to the Atlantic from Drumbeg Viewpoint, Sutherland, Scotland

 

Lochinver

We spent that night at the Inver Lodge Hotel, in Lochinver, which sits on a hillside that has a wonderful view over Lochinver Harbour. This is an excellent hotel but it isn’t in the budget category, if that’s what you are looking for.

But then the 6th of September was a special birthday for my wife, Liz, so we had dinner in the Albert Roux run restaurant in the hotel. Our dinner was superb. As a rule, Scottish hotels – at all price levels – pride themselves on the quality of their food and try to showcase local produce at every opportunity. Every hotel we’ve ever stayed in, in Scotland, offers a Breakfast menu that would be a challenge to even the hungriest guest.

Including our detour, we had travelled 124 miles at an average speed of just under 29 mph.

In my next post, I will describe our journey from Lochinver to Shieldaig in Wester Ross.

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Day One on Scotland’s North Coast 500 – Inverness to Melvich

Day One’s route from Inverness to Melvich

 

In my previous post, I spoke about the prepraration and planning that is required before you attempt Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, round Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross. Today, I will tell you about our first day on the route, which takes us from Inverness to Melvich, via Brora, Wick, John O’Groats and Thurso.

On the North Coast 500

You leave Inverness on the A9, which passes over the Beauly Firth via the North Kessock Bridge into the Black Isle (which is actually a peninsula.) You then cross the Cromarty Firth via the Cromarty Bridge and travel on fast, open roads in the direction of the Dornoch Firth.

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Looking towards the Cromarty Bridge from The Black Isle

There are a huge number of distilleries along this route and one of the best visitor centres is at the Glenmorangie distillery, just outside Tain. A word of warning about distillery tours – the legal limit for alcohol in your bloodstream is 80mg per 100ml of blood in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but it is only 50mg in Scotland.

Further up the coast, we stopped at the village of Brora. We listened to the hiss of the sea as waves crashed onto its shingle beach, while sea birds screamed overhead. The more you travel on this route, the more aware you become of how the Scottish landscape has been shaped by water – Ice Age glaciers, fast-flowing rivers, the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

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Shellfish boat in Brora, Scotland

The A9 runs close to the coast all the way up to Latheron, where it turns north up to Thurso. If you want to stick on the official NC500, you need to turn onto the A99 which will take you to the town of Wick. Continuing along the A99, you will eventually reach John O’Groats at which point your turn west.

Heading along the North Coast

The NC500 now uses the A836 to go along the top of Scotland, with views of the island of Stroma and, beyond that, the Orkneys.

Worth a small detour is the Castle of Mey, previously owned by the Queen Mother and now owned by Prince Charles. It has a good visitor centre and a nice cafeteria. Rosie is a good traveller but we always plan a few stops en route to allow her to stretch her legs from time to time, or to have a drink of water.

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Liz and Rosie at the Castle of Mey

A few miles further on is Dunnet Bay which boasts an excellent micro distillery for gin and vodka called the Dunnet Bay Distillery.

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Dunnet Bay on the North Coast of Scotland

It was opened 3 years ago by a husband and wife team and the owners told me that they used to get 20-30 visitors a week. Since the launch of the NC500, they are now getting 200-300 visitors a week and so are building a visitors’ centre that will be open 7 days a week. This is where the increasingly popular Rock Rose gin is made in a still they call “Elizabeth.” As well as the generic Rock Rose gin, they make a limited edition run of gins for each of the four seasons of the year. If you like gin, this is a “must visit” on this tour.

"Dunnet Bay Beach", Caithness, Scotland

Dunnet Bay Beach

We carried on through the town of Thurso, which with a population of 8,000, is the most northerly town in Britain. Many of the people who live here arrived to work at Dounreay nuclear power station in the 1950s. It is now being decommissioned but remains a large employer of local people.

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Looking back to Thurso

For our first night on the North Coast 500, we stopped for the night in a very comfortable hotel in the village of Melvich, called The Melvich Hotel. One of our reasons for picking this (and the next two hotels) is that it is dog friendly. It also has a wood burning pizza oven and some lovely views out to sea. We saw the biggest full moon we have ever seen and we couldn’t believe how quickly it rose in the sky. Sadly, we never saw any Northern Lights on this trip.

The hotel was full – I did warn you to book all your accomodation in advance. The hotel closes for the winter but I would not recommend that anyone tries to do the NC500 in the winter anyway. The weather can be awful and heavy snowfalls are common.

On our first day on the NC500, we had covered 156 miles at an average speed of just over 40 miles an hour. This was the easy part of our journey completed. We knew the road ahead would be more of a challenge.

In my next post, I will tell you about our journed from Melvich to Lochinver.

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Scotland’s North Coast 500

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The village of Shieldaig in Wester Ross

Introduction to the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Join me on the greatest motoring adventure in the British Isles on the North Coast 500 in Scotland.

I’ll take you along some of the most challenging roads in the country and will show you some of the most amazing scenery that you will ever see in Britain. Deserted beaches made of silver and golden sand. Forbidding mountains covered in cloud. Dramatic changes of weather and places where there is a real sense of history in the air.

You will see where the WW2 German Atlantic U Boat fleet surrendered to the Royal Navy in 1945. You will also see where a Jacobite ship, loaded with French gold for Bonnie Prince Charlie, was captured by the English Navy in 1746.

I’ll show you a “ghost village” that stands as a sad memorial to the Highland Clearances in the 1840s and the memorial by the loch where the heroic X-Craft Submariners were trained in WW2.

I’ll also show you a pretty village where you can buy what I consider to be the finest smoked salmon in the country, direct from the smokehouse. In the same village you can watch 2.5 metre wing spanned Sea Eagles with the naked eye from the roadside.

You will be given plenty of tips to help you plan your own journey. This is a trip that requires a lot of preparation both for your safety and your enjoyment.

 

A very brief history of the North Coast 500 in Scotland

In 2015, the Tourism Project Board of the North Highland Initiative launched the concept of the “North Coast 500.” It is now commonly referred to as the NC500. The idea was to increase tourism in the counties of Ross-shire, Sutherland and Caithness, by encouraging people to travel on existing roads around the coast of each county. From start to finish, it is about 500 miles long and will take you through some of the most dramatic scenery in Britain.

Very few people who you know will have covered the North Coast 500, which is now being compared to Route 66 in America as one of the greatest drives in the world.

It has been a hugely successful initiative and everyone who I talk to about it or who sees my photographs wants to add it to their “Bucket List.”

These articles are not meant to be a comprehensive guide to the North Coast 500. In addition to resources on the internet, the best book to read is “The North Coast 500 Guide Book” by Charles Tait. At the time of writing, costs £12.95 and is worth every penny.

What I hope these articles do is to give you a taste of a remarkable part of our country that very few will have ever visited, coupled with some helpful hints to make your trip successful and safe.

Long before anyone thought of the name “North Coast 500”, I drove this route in 1983, on my own. I didn’t stop very much to admire the scenery – which I should have done. In a recent readers’ poll of the Rough Guide, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world. Our recent trip round this route reminded us just why.

Officially, the route starts at Inverness Castle, heads west and goes clockwise round the coast. Back in 1983, I did it anti-clockwise and my wife, Liz and I did it that way again this year. I would encourage readers to do the same, particularly if you are not used to driving on twisty single-track roads. You encounter these quite early on in the clockwise route. This can be a bit off putting for anyone who is not used to roads like these.

Twice a year, my wife Liz, our West Highland Terrier, Rosie and I visit an Aunt of mine who lives in Dingwall, north of Inverness. Nanna (Gaelic for Anne – my mother’s family all spoke Gaelic) is 94 and is the last survivor of my mother’s generation. We combined a couple of visits to my Aunt and a visit to cousins I have on the West coast, with a trip round the NC500.

My aunt Nanna with Liz and Rosie

Before you travel to Scotland

This trip requires some serious planning. The success of the “NC500” concept has taken everyone by surprise and there is not yet the tourism infrastructure in place to cope with the surge in visitors. There aren’t enough hotels, bed and breakfasts or campsites to handle the number of visitors, so make sure that you book all your accommodation in advance.

Some of the roads you will encounter on this route are not for inexperienced drivers or the faint-hearted. If you have driven on the Wrynose Pass or the Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, you will know what to expect.

In my opinion, this route is not really suitable for caravans, though you do see a few on the route.

We saw a lot of motorhomes on the route, many of which had been hired. If you have never driven a modern, large motorhome before, this is not the place to start. Winnebago size motorhomes are definitely unsuitable for this route. Because of the number of blind summits you come across, very low sports cars are also unsuitable.

motorhome, Scourie, Sutherland, NC500, Scotland, North Coast 500

Motorhomes in Scourie, Sutherland

The route is also popular with motorcyclists (usually in pairs.) Cyclists and walkers use the NC500 as well, so keep an eye out for them all.

Satellite navigation systems and mapping software calculate how long it will take you to reach your destination, based on the speed limit of the road you are travelling on.

Apart from when you are in a town or a village, most of the NC500 is on the national speed limit of 60 mph. This is misleading as you will struggle to average 60 mph on even the best stretches of road. You would be lucky to achieve half this average speed on the single track roads. Allow yourself extra time for each stretch of your trip. This isn’t a race.

Mobile phone coverage is patchy and broadband in hotels is often a bit hit and miss. It’s probably not the fault of the hotel, as much of this area is only now beginning to catch up with the rest of the country in communications. If you do need to be reachable for family or work reasons, circulate an itinerary of where you are staying each night, giving the phone number and e-mail address.

 

Some warnings

 

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Average Speed Camera on the A9 road near to Stirling

1. This route has become very popular with drivers from other European countries. You will see many cars and motorhomes with Dutch, Belgian, German and French number plates. The problem that these drivers sometimes have is when they are coming off single-track roads onto dual-track roads and they forget which side of the road to drive on.

2. Always be prepared to do an emergency stop in situations like this. As the single-track roads often have sheep grazing next to the road, they will sometimes wander out in front of you. If you are travelling in the early mornings, beware of deer on the roads. Many years ago, I had a Red Deer Stag jump over the roof of my car in this area.

3. Most people who will be travelling on Scotland’s NC500, will have travelled up on the A9 from Stirling to Inverness. There are now average speed cameras along the entire length of the road and the speed limit for cars is 60 mph. For HGVs, the speed limit is 50 mph and you can sometimes find yourself sitting in a queue behind several HGVs. Be patient and admire the scenery.

4. There are not many convenience stores in villages on the NC500. Those that are open mostly sell the most awful sandwiches and snacks. A better idea is to ask the hotel or bed and breakfast you are staying in to make you up a packed lunch. They will welcome the extra business and you’ll get a much better lunch that you can find in the chill cabinet of a convenience store.

5. Do fill up your tank in Inverness, as the price of fuel en route is rather high. There are petrol stations but their remoteness is reflected in the prices you’ll pay, which are some of the highest in Scotland.

I will give you three “top tips” to help you make this a really safe and enjoyable adventure at the end of my blog post about the fourth day we spent on the NC500.

Click here to read about our first day on the North Coast 500, as we travel from Inverness to Melvich.

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Drumbeg Viewpoint, Sutherland

 

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