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Capturing the Aura of the Scottish Highlands With the iPhone 5s

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iPhone 5s photographs of Scotland by Jim Richardson

Leaving his trusty Nikon behind, Jim Richardson returns to a favorite spot to photograph, the Scottish Highlands, with a brave new tool—the iPhone 5S.

Our hike across Scotland continues. Edinburgh then up to Oban on the west coast, around the wee Isle of Kerrera, over by ferry to Mull, Iona, and Staffa, the island of black basalt columns, and then to Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain.

It started out a little rough—maybe I wouldn’t get out of the corner I’d painted myself into.

That first day in Edinburgh had me worried. True enough, the new iPhone I had decided to use was delightfully light to carry as we scrambled up Arthur’s Seat to look down on the capital city of Scotland. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t struggling to make pictures. Walking down the Royal Mile surrounded by all things Scottish, nothing seemed worth a picture. Out of desperation I took a few glib shots. Awful! Surrounded by great subjects I could see nothing. Made me feel worse.

New cameras are supposed to unlock photographic possibilities. New vistas are supposed to open up before us, the images flowing like water, creation itself swirling all around us. Then reality sets in.

We slogged our way up the volcanic crag called Arthur’s Seat, where the happy crowd did endless selfies with their friends. I got a couple of pictures, not much really. Hiking back down, I was a bit befuddled. And then we detoured to admire the swans in St. Margaret’s Loch, which posed and postured gracefully, gliding up close, easy subjects devoid of angst, however hackneyed they may be. They made pretty pictures. The iPhone liked them.

Cameras all have personalities. Or perhaps they have visual signatures. To some extent they always lead us around by the nose. Little by little we come around to taking the pictures the camera can do well.

With intense use (I’ve made about 4,000 pictures in the last four days) I’ve discovered that the iPhone 5S is a very capable camera. The color and exposures are amazingly good, the HDR exposure feature does a stunningly good job in touch situations, the panorama feature is nothing short of amazing—seeing a panorama sweeping across the screen in real time is just intoxicating. Best of all it shoots square pictures natively, a real plus for me since I wanted to shoot for Instagram posting.

Once I figured out what the camera could do well I began to forget all the things it couldn’t do at all. Hiking up to Ben A’an, a popular Sunday hike for hearty Scottish families, I found that it was really quite capable of doing nice macro shots of mushrooms in the woods. And up on top, overlooking Loch Katrine, the scenes of the children perched on the bobby peak were ready-made for simple, unfussy images.

By the time we got to the Isles of Staffa and Iona I was fully entrenched in quick, facile seeing. I played with the patterns of volcanic basalt columns in Fingal’s Cave, played with portraits of medieval knights carved in their grave slabs at Iona Abbey—even in low light in the museum the camera did pretty well. We didn’t have much time but that was OK because being quick and nimble was really quite fun.

What surprised me most was that the pictures did not look like compromises. They didn’t look like I was having to settle for second best because it was a mobile phone. They just looked good. Nothing visually profound is being produced here, I would have to say. But it feels good, and I even noticed some of the folks on our tour putting big digital cameras aside once in a while and pulling out their cell phones when they just wanted to make a nice picture.

We still have days to go here in Scotland. We are out on the Isle of Skye tonight and tomorrow it is going to rain—this is Scotland, after all. Almost all cameras can take good pictures in good situations. We’ll see how I do when the going gets tough.

Follow Jim’s visual voyage on Instagram at #proofscotland. A full collection of Jim’s photo tips can be found here.

Jim Richardson is a Kansas farm kid whose father loaned him a used camera and whose mother allowed him to use her kitchen as a printing darkroom. He has been photographing his rapidly expanding world ever since, often seeking out remote places and always searching for the extraordinary in the commonplace. One of his favorite locations is Scotland.


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