Dougie Cunningham “Softness & Subtlety

Photographing Scotland: Dougie Cunningham Talks about the “Softness & Subtlety” of Scottish Landscape

Award-winning Scotland based photographer Dougie Cunningham is finally releasing his four-yearlong project Photographing Scotland. This extraordinary guidebook opens up Scotland’s classic landscapes from unseen perspectives and reveals new hidden treasures amongst the evergreens of the Gaelic countryside. Photographing Scotland is fresh on the market and soon to become the cornerstone for anyone hoping to capture the wild Scottish landscape. Copytrack spoke to Cunningham about his epic debut, his advice for capturing the Scottish landscape, and his experiences with digital image theft.

What can readers expect from your book Photographing Scotland?

Quite a lot! Scotland is an amazing place to explore and to photograph; there are great opportunities around almost every corner. Half the fun of photography is in discovering places yourself, and I’ve tried hard to encourage people to look beyond the most obvious views without becoming overly prescriptive. That has meant recommending alternative viewpoints at the most popular locations, as well as describing a lot of great venues that most people have never heard of. Each location has detailed access information, including parking information and directions, along with suggestions for what time and conditions may bring out the best in the place. There are around 280 locations described, illustrated with around 800 photographs to give people a flavour of each place. For local photographers, it will be a great reference and should introduce some places that are too often overlooked. For people visiting Scotland, it will be the perfect tool to help plan their road trip around the most scenic places in the country.

What makes shooting in Scotland such a great experience?

Scotland is one of those wonderful places where everything comes together perfectly! For a start, it’s a very friendly place to travel, which makes all the difference in the world. We also have an incredibly rich variety in the landscape. The geology in this one small country is so wonderfully complex that there are many different characters to Scotland. The mountains and glens of the western highlands contrast greatly with the surreal cnocs and lochans of Assynt, which in turn could be a thousand miles from the perfect white sands of Harris, rather than just a few hours travel… We also have an incredibly rich cultural heritage and much of our history is still strewn around the landscape, adding another layer of complexity and depth to your journey as much as your photographs. These are elements that any visitor to Scotland will appreciate, but we also have a unique quality to the light here sometimes that sets Scotland apart from other place for photographers. It’s a difficult thing to describe in words, but there is a softness and subtlety to the light that makes for incredible images. 

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What is your favourite location and time of year to shoot in Scotland?

Over recent years I’ve come to increasingly appreciate Assynt as a destination. The mountains here stand stoically isolated from each other amongst thousands small, low hills and lochans. It’s an almost surreal place, where you can almost feel the weight of the countless years that have shaped the landscape. The colours in the late autumn here are incredible. Through the winter, the sun never reaches far into the sky, and the light amongst the mountains can be mind-blowing.

The cover image is spectacular. Can you tell us whereabouts in Scotland it is and the story behind the photo?

Thanks! The lonely little bothy is on the banks of Loch Stack in Sutherland, which is in the far north-west of Scotland. There was a huge storm battering the west coast, and after a long and pretty rough week in the campervan I decided it was time to call it a day and head back to Glasgow. I was passing the loch and saw the wind create a huge waterspout on the surface of the loch. I reversed into a parking spot, and had to set the tripod up in the back of the van - it was too windy to stand outside. The van was rocking like it was ready to roll, but after the biggest gusts there was a wee moment of calm, when I could pop the door open and snatch a shot as the gust hit the surface of the loch. Then I’d close the door, clean the water off the lens and try again. I only got a few clear shots, and thankfully this one was amongst them, where the pattern in the clouds and the water lifting from the loch’s surface all played well with each other. It was an incredible thing to watch, and the adrenaline rush saw me through the rest of a pretty tricky drive home.

How long has this book be in the works, and was there a particular challenging part of the process?

The book took a little under four and a half years from start to finish. It’s been a huge part of my life throughout that time, and there have definitely been some pretty significant challenges. Initially, deciding what to include was the most daunting aspect, but as I travelled and talked to local photographers and other artists around the country that all fell fairly naturally into place. The biggest ongoing challenge was much more mundane: the need for spending so much time out on the road while maintaining a business and paying the bills at the same time. With so much ground to cover I had to block out time in the diary to make longer trips away, which meant there were significant outgoings that almost always coincided with periods that I wasn’t doing any paid work. I had a budget at the start of the project, but I vastly underestimated how much travel would be required; most locations were visited more than once, and we included a great deal more than anticipated when we started! It’s been a life changing and utterly wonderful project to work on, but I have to admit that at times it was also… character building.

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Do you have any tips for photographers hoping to capture the Scottish landscape?

Get out there. Don’t wait for the perfect weather forecast, don’t wait until you’ve got that shiny new lens that you’ve been saving up for. Heck, forget the lens and spend the money on fuel and ferries instead! Don’t hit the snooze button, you’ll appreciate the early start once the sun is lingering just over the horizon… Get out there as often as you possibly can, experiment, explore and just enjoy being somewhere beautiful whether you go home with a photograph worthy of the wall or not.

As a photographer, how do you distribute your work online, and do you ever have issues or fears of digital image theft?

I make sure that any images that I post on my own website or on social media are only low resolution. I also watermark them - I know there are good arguments against doing so, but I try to do it discretely and place it individually in each image to minimise the impact while still offering a little protection. The most recent issue I’ve had was a company that had lifted one of my photographs from (I assume) a press website. Being a licensed use, that image wasn’t watermarked, and the commercial Facebook page in question appeared to have a pretty strong tradition of lifting un-watermarked images from various photographers to use without permission. The fact that all the images that they lacked any sort of watermark seems to suggest that watermarking does help. I make sure that my copyright information is included in the metadata for every file I export, whether it’s for licensed use or simply for posting online. It’s a potentially big problem, but one I have been lucky not to run into so far.

About Dougie Cunningham

Dougie Cunningham is an award-winning photographer from Scotland. Visit his website and his Instagram account. This year, he published the companion and visitor guidebook Photographing Scotland with FotoVUE.

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