THERE'S a sharp distinction between a mountaineer who takes photographs and a photographer who climbs mountains.
I belong in the former camp: my objective is always the mountain and if I happen to snap a few good pictures along the way then all the better. The photographer sets out in search of an image and reaching the summit is often their bonus.
Any time I have been invited to deliver a talk to a camera club, I start by pointing this out. It's our wonderful landscape that's the star, and often it's simply a case of being in the right place at the right time. And the more you are in the right place at the right time, the more chance there is of capturing something special.
For me, it's also about traveling lightweight. If I'm doing a long, hard mountain circuit I don't want to be lugging heavy camera gear around. I learned that lesson years ago on a ten-hour night traverse of Beinn Eighe in winter conditions when the LSR remained a useless weight in my rucksack for the full round.
During one talk, I was showing a series of shots taken from the summit of A' Mhaighdean as the sun went down. I had spent nearly two hours at the top of this remote Munro in bitter winds watching the sun slowly sink below the horizon.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to be there. Reality soon tempered those thoughts, however, when it was pointed out that to reach that vantage point meant a demanding 12-hour round trip through rough and lonely terrain and most likely an overnight camp. And that's without factoring in carrying heavy camera gear. For the majority of the audience, the summit of A' Mhaighdean may as well have been on the moon.
It was a similar scenario during a visit to Skye earlier this year, when the sensational weather sparked a spur of the moment decision to climb the highest peak, Sgurr Alasdair, to catch the sunset.
Timing was everything. I had three hours to reach the summit and managed with just ten minutes to spare. The final hour of tortuous ascent up the Great Stone Chute was eased by the sensational show of colour all around, peaks and walls pulsing through the spectrum of reds, oranges and yellows with some bars of blue and purple thrown in for good measure.
The view looking back from the top of the Chute showing the tiny bump of the Inaccessible Pinnacle standing out on the distant ridge is a much-snapped image, but now I was seeing it in a whole new light. Right time, right place.
There has been the rare exception to my rule. Having been along the summit ridge of An Teallach many times, on one outing I left the rest of the group heading for the heights and instead made for the lochan cradled in the hollow beneath these dramatic spires.
When I got there, the mountain was invisible from the shores, the mist stubbornly refusing to budge. I waited for more than an hour with no change. But just as I had decided to pack up my gear and head back down, the first glimpses of hope started to appear. Gradually, the grey curtain swirled and lifted and I had a flawless view of An Teallach reflected in the waters of Loch Toll an Lochain. Within ten minutes, it had all disappeared again. A short window, an incredible piece of luck. The timing could not have been better.
It was only days later that I noticed another unusual feature in the picture – when turned on its side, the reflection showed the face of an animal. It was interesting to later discover that one landscape photographer had recently visited the mountain on five consecutive days in search of a certain image but the weather had beaten him every time.
My membership of the lucky white heather club obviously hadn't lapsed when we set off on a memorial walk for a friend in Glen Esk a couple of months ago. The waters of Loch Lee lay motionless, barely a ripple creasing the surface, the horizon of hills at the far end of the loch mirrored in the blue. It was the perfect picture moment, one befitting the occasion and the cameras were clicking away.
A few of the group took turns at throwing a stone into the water hoping to capture the gentlest breach in that unblemished cover. With the sunlight glare on the screens, the results were unknown and we moved on. But later in the day, as we looked over each other's shots of the walk, it turned out I had been lucky enough to catch the ripple dead centre. A millisecond either way and it would have been a different story.
I have friends who are accomplished photographers but whose hill outings tend to be few and far between. In comparison, I am out on average twice a week, so opportunities present themselves on a far more regular basis.
One pal who lives abroad was forever passing on tips about how to take better pictures. A while back, he suggested I should be taking a tripod for summit shots. I realised then that he hadn't been up many mountains in Scotland. I pointed out that the chances of setting up a tripod in the constant howling gales sweeping our tops made this a near impossibility most of the time, and that it would be simply be something else to add to the weight of the pack.
Reality finally arrived during a holiday homecoming when he failed to get even one of those chocolate box shots after being battered and bruised by the mountain wind and rain for two weeks. By the time it came to leave, he had surrendered to my way of thinking.