Behind the shot: the story of my award-winning Muckle Skerry photograph

In July I won a prestigious Association of Photographers award for my landscape photography of a Scottish lighthouse dwarfed by storm clouds and a rainbow. That picture is on show with other winners from the AOP Awards at the ‘Beyond the Lens’ festival from Friday 13 – Monday 16 October, at the Old Truman Brewery in London. Here’s how I made it.

Travel photography Scotland: A rainbow frames Muckle Skerry Lighthouse in the Pentland Firth, near John o' Groats, Scotland.
A rainbow frames Muckle Skerry Lighthouse in the Pentland Firth, near John o' Groats, Scotland.

Back in April I was traipsing along the coast near Duncansby Head, Britain’s northwestern-most point, while working on a personal travel photography project. The weather was grim: dark grey clouds and driving rain, all adding up to obliterated horizons and a constantly wet lens (and photographer!).

Bad weather often makes for good photographs, so I use a weather-sealed battle-tank of a camera to make sure I can keep shooting: a trusty Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk II, fitted with an Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm F2.8 Pro lens. Even so, for most of the day the light and conditions just weren’t working for me. Even a good camera is no use when the elements don’t come together.

As I trudged back to the car, however, a gap opened between two banks of gloomy cloud and sunlight streamed through. As the clouds – and the gap – drifted overhead I knew it was perfect rainbow weather: constant rain, soon to be backlit by the sun.

I sprinted back to Duncansby Head lighthouse – never happier to be a runner – fumbling filters on to my lens (I use the Lee Seven5 kit). I used a 0.6ND soft grad to more-or-less equalise sky and land exposure, and a circular polariser to intensify the rainbow’s saturation and limit haze from the heavy rain. Rainbow after rainbow danced out to sea, and I grew wetter and wetter photographing them, wiping the rain away from my filters every few shots to try to catch the ‘decisive moment’.

I shot for 13 minutes before the rainbows dissipated, with my favourite picture captured after 10. The rainbow was bright enough that I didn’t have to do too much in Lightroom to bring it out: a smallish tweak to exposure, a moderate boost in contrast, a little work with curves and careful use of the dehaze tool. Often it’s hard to improve upon nature.

Blue skies have their charm, but stormy weather can bring incredible rewards to photographers willing to put up with it. Next time those rain clouds approach, grab your waterproofs and get shooting. It might be your best day yet.

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