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The Fires of Highland Park

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

No two ways about it: Fire makes good pictures.

We hit pay dirt right off the bat at our first stop in Scotland's whisky country. Rounding the corner on the way to the still house at Highland Park, we happened upon David Muir stoking the fires that dry the malted barley.

Fire is at the heart of whisky in several ways. Blistering hot with an infernal glow, the fire was all seething heat. On such a job as this, a man works fast. Occasionally David tossed on some peat, dried sod from the island's bogs. Ththis is sent a puff of pungent smoke upstairs from the hearth, where the grain was drying, thus adding a flavor particular to this island and no other.

Single malt whisky has a heat all its own. Out on the Isle of Skye they call the local dram, Talisker, the "Lava of the Cuillins." But the flavor of every whisky emanates from its own place. So you'll not mistake Highland Park for Talisker, though both come from Scottish islands and from the hands of clever, stubborn Scots.

Here was my opportunity for a picture full of heat (and maybe a bit of sweat, too). But getting that red glow? More difficult than it looks. The laws of physics and light have the nasty habit of getting in the way. The fire's light, which was bright enough, dropped off quickly by the time it got to David's face. A straight exposure would result in the fire glowing red, but with David too dark and dull. Or I could get the exposure on David right, rendering him a ruddy red, but then the fire would be all washed out. With a straight exposure I could have one or the other—but not both.

Another possibility? I could just turn on my flash (the first thing you might do in a dark situation) but in this case it was a miserable option. The light from the flash would be as white as daylight, totally out of character with the scene I wanted to capture.

The solution was to add some light from my flash, but in a very precise way (with a couple of tricks added) and perfectly balance the light levels with the overall scene. Fortunately my friend and assistant Jim Turner was at hand and at the ready. First, we got out my flash and put on a strong orange filter (technically called a full CTO, for you flash hounds out there). This is the filter that would usually make the flash's light match regular tungsten light. So now we have the color of the flash matching the color of the fire. Next we put the flash in a small soft box, a diffuser to soften the light into a gentle glow. To make the light look natural, we put the flash down on the floor, just out of the picture, pointing up at David and into his face. Coming from that direction, the light looked like it was coming from a blazing fire.

Finally, I played around with the light levels. This was essential. I lowered the exposure for the available light in the scene until the fire glowed brightly but wasn't washing out the color. Then I raised the level of light from my flash carefully until David's hands and face showed a radiant glow. How did I know when I got it right? I just kept taking pictures and checked the image on my camera's screen, that's how. My friend Dave Black says, "Take a shot, take a peek." Exactly!

Behind David, the light from the open door cast a cool light on the floor and added a highlight to the handle of his shovel. He humored me while I went through all these gyrations. But because I do this sort of thing often, the whole thing might have taken no more than five minutes. Still, that's a long time for a man who has a fire to feed and a pot still boiling in the still house.

That night back at the Lynnfield Hotel just next door, Malcolm pulled out a rare vintage from his extensive Highland Park collection and poured us a wee dram. The rusty, golden color was a deeper shade of the blistering coals.

I could taste the fire.

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