Landscape Photography in the Cairngorms National Park

11th March 2013
At the start of January I headed for my first trip to the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland for a joint ski and walking holiday, a six and a half hour drive from home in Sheffield. We set up base for the week in a lovely cottage in Aviemore (Birch Cottage – perfect for 2). In the run up to Christmas the Cairngorm Mountain Ski area had plenty of snow and following their many informative updates and photos on their Facebook page > the snow was looking good and the runs & lifts mainly open. Between Christmas and New Year the weather turned and the temperatures rose leading to a lot of snow melt reducing the amount of skiing available to a few runs. Whilst the change in weather was not great for the ski situation, the conditions were perfect for walking and hiking and so we spent the week exploring the ancient pine forests and many secluded lochs. The area was so quiet being January, nearly everywhere we went throughout the week was deserted, letting us enjoy the magnificent landscape and walks all by ourselves!

I have created a Google map to locate some of the locations of the photographs in this blog post:

View Cairngorms Photography Locations in a larger map

One major benefit of visiting Scotland in January is the rather luxuriously late sunrise times; I managed to get out for sunrise on everyday of the trip, leaving the cottage at a leisurely 8am for a 8.50am sunrise time. On 2 of the mornings I was out a good 2 hours before sunrise to capture the pre-glow on the Cairngorm Mountains.

Dawn at Loch Morlich – Cairngorms National Park - Settings: 20sec ƒ/14 ISO100 @ 17mm - ND4 Grad Filter

The first morning was spent on the shores of Loch Morlich and proved to be one of the more successful morning trips due to the mix of slightly stormy skies along with little of no wind. Being out way before sunrise meant I was on shores of the Loch in near darkness, I could see the Ski Patrol and piste bashers working away on the Cairngorm Mountain ski area moving the snow and setting up for a day on the slopes. The near perfect reflections in the loch and apparent lack of snow on the mountain range made for some very interesting shapes in the loch with the ski runs zig zagging across the frame.

Pre dawn mountain glow at overlooking Loch Morlich - Settings: 30sec ƒ/14 ISO100 @ 40mm - ND4 Grad Filter

The moon was bright on this morning and I included this in one of my favourite photos from the trip.

Loch Morlich - Glenmore Forest - Cairngorms National Park - Settings: 30sec ƒ/14 ISO 100 @ 17mm - ND4 Grad Filter

I decide to brave the rainfall in the afternoon (the only rain we had all week) and went for a trip to Loch Garten, famous for its resident Osprey and subsequent visitors centre. Whilst huddled under a big umbrella, I fired a few shots off from the banks of the loch, the mist and rain clouds were slowly flowing over the distant mountains. This shot needed a quite strong levels adjustment to bring the contrast and details back into the scene; I purposely exposed the shot with the histogram firmly to the right to capture maximum detail in the frame.

Loch Garten – Boat of Garten - Settings: 3sec ƒ/16 ISO100 @ 17mm

Loch an Eilean was recently voted the best spot for a picnic in the British Isles, something I wouldn’t disagree with, the circular walk around Loch an Eilean is simply stunning. We again had perfect weather on this afternoon more akin to early autumn than the first week in January. The walk provided quite a few photo opportunities, the castle in the loch dates from 13th century.

Loch an Eilean Castle - Settings: 1/160 ƒ/9 ISO400 @ 55mm

Half way around the Loch an Eilean circular walk you have the option to walk around Loch Gamhna. This is when the best of the light of the day came out from behind the clouds, it was very difficult to line everything up in this shot as the sun was so strong, I wanted to feature the island with the trees but couldn’t get into position down the site of the loch to get the background so resorted to shooting into the sunlight, this gave me many issues with the exposure and marks on the filters, however after a few attempts and checks on the screen I managed to get everything into the shot. This is a single frame from the D7000, the amount of dynamic range that it has captured has really impressed me, with my D200 I would have needed to shoot 2 or 3 frames and spend time trying to arrange these in Photoshop.

Afternoon light at Loch Gamhna - Settings: 0.4sec ƒ/18 ISO100 @ 17mm - ND8 Grad Filter

The end of the walk provided the best light, I fired off a few shots from the edge of the Loch to try and capture the dramatic late afternoon light on the Cairngorm Mountains.

Loch an Eilean – Cairngorms National Park - Settings: 1/5sec ƒ/16 ISO100 @ 55mm

I spent the Wednesday morning at the relatively unknown Loch Pityoulish, the morning was quite grey to start with and so I tried to create some images with a more minimalist style. The high water levels in the loch meant that some of the recently cut trees were actually in the loch providing an interesting but barren focus point for the shots.

Loch Pityoulish – Cairngorms National Park - Settings: 30sec ƒ/16 ISO100 @ 17mm - ND4 Grad Filter

As I made my way along the shores of the loch the sunrise began to develop, the sky began to turn into the pink tones that I was hoping for but due to the cloud cover the sunrise never really materialised. As I made my way back to the car still before the official sunrise time having made the images that I was hoping for, I could see the sunrise really beginning shine through a large gap in the clouds. I could see where to sunrise was occurring but had no way of photographing it due to the direction of the hills surrounding the loch blocking the event happening in the distance. I decided to cut my losses and head for another location, on the journey to the nearby Loch Garten I could see some amazing sunlight over the Cairngorm Mountains with no way of capturing it, a typical landscape photographers dilemma! I arrived at the shores at Loch Garten at the published sunrise time, as I made my way through the ancient pine forest towards the loch the sun began to filter through the scots pines, I quickly set off and fired off a few exposures with a few different compositions. I found that the shots worked best shooting directly into the sunlight, not something I would normally do, I placed the sun behind the thick trunk of the pine tree and deliberately overexposed the highlights in order to capture the detail in the branches and pine tree, the result was my favourite photograph from the Cairngorms trip.

Loch Garten Forest - Cairngorms National Park - Settings: 4sec ƒ/16 ISO100 @ 55mm

By the time I got to the edge of the loch the sun once again began to hide behind the bank of cloud, I managed a couple of shots before the light finally disappeared for the rest of the morning

Loch Garten shortly after sunrise - Settings: 0.5sec ƒ/22 ISO100 @ 18mm

Loch Garten – Boat of Garten – Cairngorms National Park - Settings: 2sec ƒ/22 ISO100 @ 24mm

An Lochan Uaine is situated in the Glenmore Forest Park, to get to the loch you walk past the Cairngorm Reindeer centre through a forest walk starting from the forest lodge & Glenmore visitors centre. The loch is quite an amazing site, the green in the water is quite stunning in real life and hard to capture on the camera, the name of the loch simply means 'Green Lochan' the green colour is reputed to be caused by the local fairies washing their clothes. In order to keep the colour in the photo I used a polarising filter to cut the reflections, the day was very overcast so this meant that it was even more difficult to bring out the colour in the scene.

An Lochan Uaine - Settings: 2sec ƒ/14 ISO100 @ 31mm - Polariser

On the walk back to the car we took the scenic route up the side of the hill above the tree line. From here there were amazing views towards the Cairngorm Mountains through the forest trees.

Glenmore Forest – Cairngorms National Park - Settings: 1/6sec ƒ/16 ISO100 @ 17mm - ND8 Grad Filter

Glenmore Forest & Cairngorm Mountains - Settings: 1/13sec ƒ/18 ISO100 @32mm - ND8 Grad Filter

We had a great walk one day from Loch Garten, past Loch Mallachie and then onto and through the Abernethy Forest. This shot was taken just off the single track (closed to motor vehicles) in the distance the peaks of Craiggowrie and Creagan Gorm emerge from the low mist and cloud.

Abernethy Forest - Settings: 1/8sec ƒ/16 ISO100 @ 45mm - ND4 Grad Filter

Trees in the Abernethy Forest - Settings: 1/6sec ƒ/5 ISO100 @ 48mm

As the day progressed the weather got better and better, by the time we made it back to Loch Garten the sun had really come out and brought the loch to life with these amazing clouds and reflections.

Loch Garten - Settings: 1/10sec ƒ/14 ISO100 @ 17mm

The weather turned towards the end of the week and our final day in the Cairngorms was more light the conditions we were expecting. On the final morning of the trip the temperature in the car read -12 degrees, the landscape had been transformed from the autumn conditions to a frosty winter landscape, the trees were all white with frost and the edges of the lochs had begun to freeze over.

Loch Morlich - Settings: 2.5sec ƒ/14 ISO100 @ 44mm

Ice on Loch Morlich - Settings: 1sec ƒ/14 ISO100 @ 24mm

On the way back home we decided to take the scenic route for the day down the A86 towards Fort William, the road runs between Kingussie and Spean Bridge. On this road is Loch Laggan, which was the area used to film many of the scenes for the popular BBC tv series Monarch of the Glen and was known in the series as Loch Bogle. The Ardverikie Estate which sits the other side of the loch formed the base for most of the filming with Ardverikie House playing the part of the main house. The loch also features the largest freshwater inland beach in the UK on its northern shores.

Loch Laggan - Monach of the Glen Country - Settings: 1/13sec ƒ/18 ISO100 @ 17mm

More images from previous photography trips to the Scottish Highlands can be seen in the Scotland portfolio >

About Nick
Nick Cockman is a digital photographer from Sheffield specialising in UK Landscape and Seascape photography.

Follow me on Twitter →
Follow me on Facebook →


Photo comment By Alan Cockman: What fantastic photos

Leave a comment

Your Name
Your Email
Your Comment
No info required here, please press the button below.