As we move away from the Autumn Equinox and towards the Winter Solstice it seems to me that, along with the days getting shorter and colder, the evening skies are getting brighter and bolder. We often get brooding skies, with the oranges, pinks and reds from the setting sun breaking up the greys, blues and purples of clearing storm clouds to produce dramatic scenes such as one I witnessed at Castle Tioram on a late-November afternoon and shown the image below. This makes me beg the question: Are late autumn and winter sunsets better than those we get at other times of the year? Well, it turns out that scientific studies have confirmed this to be the case and they have discovered the reasons why
Scientific researchers have found that the peak sunset season is from November through to February and that this is down to a combination three things. These are the type and quantity of the cloud cover, cooler air temperatures and how the Earth is tilted towards the sun at this time of the year.
Contrary to what you might think, we need clouds for a good sunset and they have to be the right kind of clouds. If they are too low down on the horizon, they will block out the Sun’s rays and prevent a sunset. Instead, we need mid to high level clouds that will refract the sunlight and give us those beautiful sunset colours. This happens more in autumn and winter because the weather patterns we get then tend to bring mid and high-level altocumulus, altostratus and cirrus clouds.
The cooler temperatures mean that the air is less humid and that there is less water vapour to capture dust particles that are in the air and create the haze which is often a feature of the summer months. When present, this haze scatters sunlight and reduces its intensity. So, in autumn and winter, the lower humidity means that the air is clearer and we see the colours produced by the setting sun in all their intensity.
Finally, as we approach the winter solstice, the North Pole gets tilted further away from the sun, lengthening the time taken for the sun to set. This, in turn, means that the sunset colours last longer than at the equinoxes, for example, when the sun sinks very quickly towards the horizon at a 90-degree angle. The result is that we have more time to enjoy the sunset colours and the sunset colours have more time to make an impact on us.
Despite all of these variables, predicting sunsets doesn’t have to be hard. All you need to do is keep an eye out for the following key indicators:
Mid to high-level clouds (2km and above)
Cloud coverage - 30 to 70 percent
Humidity - low but not too low
Prior rainfall - no less than 2 to 6 hours before
Wind speed - low or non-existent
There are many online forecasts for these weather conditions and the one I refer to most is windy.com. So why don’t you have a go at predicting a sunset and head west at what you think might be a good time. You never know, you may be well rewarded for your efforts!
We’re coming to the end of this winter. One during which we had the coldest January since 2010. One of snow and of cold and clear weather and one that has been productive from a photographic perspective. See some of the images I’ve captured and find out a bit about the story behind them….
How Do You Cope with all the Snow?
We are fast approaching the start of Meteorological Spring (March, April and May) and also the end of my fifth winter since moving to the Peninsulas. There is a noticeable difference in the hours of daylight as the nights shorten and it will not be long before the landscape begins to spring back into life. I find myself thinking back on the winter months of December, January and February; and also a question I’m often asked by people visiting – “How do you cope with all the snow in winter?”
Why this question gets asked always intrigues me. It seems to always happen when standing on the decking outside my studio looking at Loch Sunart and all the hills that surround it. Could it be because this remote and rugged landscape looks foreboding? Could it be because we are well north of where most people live? Who knows? Well, whatever it is, my answer is always the same - “It’s never a problem here as we don’t get that much snow and when we do get it, it is usually only high up on the hills. In fact, if the snow does fall down here at sea level, it only lasts a day or two at the very most and I guess that being on a bit of land that sticks out into the sea on the west coast means that the Gulf Stream keeps the temperatures up”.
This is indeed true and it is complete contrast to the snowy winters I experienced when growing up on the east side of Scotland when, in the days without central heating, thick frost would form on the inside of the windows and we’d need to scrape a little hole in it to reveal what was outside. I do miss “proper” winters like that, but looking back over the last few months, it certainly feels as if we’ve had one this time. In fact, we’ve just had our coldest January since 2010, with the average temperature recording in Scotland being 0.6°C while my weather station here at Resipole recorded an average of 2.9°C. The strong northerly air flow that brought the low temperatures also brought substantial sunshine with it and plenty of cold, crisp and clear days on which I just had to get out with the camera.
First Snow and Winter Inspiration
Looking back through my images from the last few months reminded me that this “proper” winter weather was not just limited to January. Indeed, we saw our first snow at the end of November while having a staycation at Kingairloch Estate over on the east side of the Peninsulas. We woke up on a morning towards the end of our week away to see snow on the distant high peaks of Glencoe and the Mamores. This prompted a drive up the shore of Loch Linnhe to get a closer look.
The snow-capped mountains looked lovely under the clear blue sky and we just had to stop at Lochan Doire a' Bhraghaid to take in the view. From there you get a fantastic view of Ben Nevis because you can see it through a gap in the hills above Inversanda. While there, I took this shot of the snow-covered slopes of Ben Nevis, some 17 miles to the north and made a mental note to myself to come back at some point and capture it when it had the first light of a winter day on it.
Searching for Some Light
This first of the winter snow on the hills lasted for just over a week, but before it disappeared, I headed to West Ardnamurchan and up to a spot high on the slopes of Beinn Bhuidhe above Glenmore. It’s a great place to capture panoramic views of Loch Sunart or use a long lens to not only pick out elements of the high hills of Morvern on the other side of Loch Sunart, but also of Loch Teacuis, which cuts its way southwards into them.
Unfortunately, I always seem to time my visits to the slopes of Beinn Bhuidhe on days when the light does not want to do what I need it to do. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve left Resipole under promising looking skies only to arrive at my spot and find thick cloud and no light on the landscape. I thought that this time was going to be another like that because thick cloud greeted me on my arrival.
As I followed the path up to Beinn Bhuidhe, I kept looking at the cloud filled sky in the hope that it would clear a little and let through some light, but it didn’t. Undeterred, I set up at my chosen spot and sat for about an hour, sheltering as best I could from the biting easterly wind, while looking through the long-lens I’d fitted to the camera in search of some compositions that might work if the light did appear. I had almost given up hope, but in the few minutes before the sun was due to dip below the hills to the south-west, a small gap appeared to let a patch of light fall on the snow-capped peak of Beinn Iadain, one of the high peaks of Morvern. The resulting image shows the peak of Ben Iadain sporting a crown of golden light with the north facing slopes of Beinn Ghormaig, the Isle Carna and the Isle of Risga sitting in front of it.
An Afternoon of Serendipity
Thankfully, not all my shots are so hard won and occasionally good fortune smiles on me. In early December, a few weeks after my time on Beinn Bhuidhe, I had a batch of Christmas orders to take to the Post Office in Acharacle and while packing them all into the car, I could not help but notice some hints of colour appearing in the sky to the west. It looked promising, so I decided to take my camera gear with me just in case. I sure wasn’t disappointed with what unfolded.
As I drove down into the village, I could see the mist beginning to form in the air above Loch Shiel, so instead of going straight to the Post Office, I took the short detour down to the jetty in village to check out the conditions on the loch. As I stood on the jetty, I watched the pinks and purples of a winter sunset intensify while mist rolled down the loch and I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of calm, as well as whole load of good fortune about my decision to take my camera gear with me.
I was there for well over an hour, photographing scenes in different directions and under different light conditions before deciding that I really needed to get to the Post Office before it closed. Both jobs done. Parcels posted and a number of “keepers” captured including this panoramic image of the sunset colours at their peak.
A Plan Comes Together
Finding myself in January and in a new year, my mind was still set on capturing the shot of the first light of the day on the snow covered peak of Ben Nevis. The shot that I had thought of when I saw the first snow of this winter on the hills back in November.
With clouds usually covering its summit for nearly 80% of the winter months, photographing Ben Nevis sure turned out to be a bit of a wating game. There needed to be a clear morning during a spell of the weather cold enough to put snow on the Ben and freeze the surface of Lochan Doire a' Bhraghaid. Finally, at the start of the second week in January, the conditions seemed very promising and I headed up into the hills above Inversanda for sunrise in the hope that I’d get the shot I was looking for.
Setting up in the dark, I couldn’t see if Ben Nevis was clear of cloud, but the moon and stars above my head suggested that it could be. As I waited for the first light of what was a very cold January morning to appear, the mountain began to emerge from the darkness and it looked as if my luck was in. Eventually, the first light of the day shone on its south facing upper slopes and there was just enough cloud to enhance the pink of the sunrise which, even at a distance of 17 miles, was reflected back onto the frozen surface of the lochan. I love it when a plan comes together.
Time for a Plan B
The last week in January brought a few days of very heavy snowfall which, very unusually left a couple of inches of the white stuff all the way down to the seashore. Equally unusual were day and night-time temperatures so low that the snow at sea level did not disappear. As I watched successive tides wash fresh falls of snow from the loch shore, I thought that an image of snow lying on a sandy beach all the way down to the water would be worth capturing and that the beach at Ardtoe would be a great place to do it.
With this in mind, I awoke early on a morning after heavy overnight snow had been forecast. On opening the curtains to a freshly snow-covered landscape, I decided to head out to Ardtoe. With much anticipation, I left the house but as I drove closer and closer to my destination the clear skies became more and more obscured by mist. This is not unusual because the low ground around Loch Shiel often cradles mist on cold and still winter mornings. So undeterred, I continued my journey to the beach as experience suggested that it would be clear there. However, it was not to be and I was greeted by a snow-covered beach shrouded in thick mist. The more I waited for the mist to clear, the thicker and thicker it seemed to become, so I eventually decided to head home.
On the drive back through a beautiful snow-covered landscape, I thought that the conditions were too good to submit to failure and began racking my brains to figure out a place where a combination of misty conditions and fresh snow fall could work together. I eventually decided to take a small detour to the old bridge over the River Shiel at Blain to see what it was like there. When I arrived, I was not disappointed. The scene was stunning with all the trees covered in the freshly fallen snow and some beautiful light fighting its way through the mist behind the bridge. After an extremely productive half hour, I left with a few images, including this one of the bridge, with the river beneath it coloured by golden light fighting to break through the mist behind it. Thank heavens for a little local knowledge and for figuring out a Plan B.
A Winter I Will Remember
It’s been a winter just like the ones I remember from my childhood. I’ll remember it not only for its snow and its cold, clear days but also for it being a winter that has given me an extremely productive time for my photography. The images I’ve included in this blog are just a small sample of those that I’ve captured and if you’d like to see more, you can find the in the Recent Images Gallery on this website. I hope you enjoy them.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.