The mystical Kilchurn castle: chasing the sunrise

Landscape photography requires a great inspiring location, lots of dedication as well as patience. This project was certainly not an exception. The romantic ruins of Kilchurn castle on an island of Loch Awe has been an inspiration for famous paintings through the centuries. It is now loved by landscape photographers and tourists. The loch even attracts a tens of fishermen and campers every day from the Scottish cities and beyond.

My first dawn at Loch Awe was considerably more cloudy than expected. It was an early July last year; the sun would rise between the hills far in to the distance. The hopes were high for a dramatic fairytale view. The camera was in position – the waiting game was on.  A few minutes after the sunrise just a slither of light finally broke through the veil of heavy clouds and illuminated a narrow stretch of hills behind the castle. Unfortunately, the sun never truly came out that morning and the light faded moments later despite crystal clear sky overhead in the opposite direction. As the midge bites became more savage by a second I retreated back to the car hopping through a soaking wet marshland. 

I came back to the castle on a chilly clear morning in October last year. The clear weather forecast this time proved to be correct. A dense fog was rising over the loch and hills. The visibility was actually quite poor and the sun took ages to rise behind the hills and the tree line. It appeared I was defeated once again. A short respite came as the wind started to pick up about an hour after the dawn. Pleasingly, the visibility improved enough to give a reasonable view of the castle, while retaining the misty and idilic atmosphere. However, the wind also disturbed the surface of the loch – a rather unwelcome side effect! There was also a distinct lack of interesting foreground features. Initially I tried to include some rocks in the frame. This provided a reasonable composition; admittedly I could have used a weak ND filter to prolong the shutter speed and as a result soften the water appearance. 

Moments later the fog intensified and the castle became hidden from the view once again. The show however wasn’t over yet. I turned around and my attention was immediately drawn to the mist shrouded trees on the shore line. The mist diffused the sunlight creating a subtle glow and painting the scene in subdued pastel colours. I stood in the water and used the reeds as a leading line. To be honest, this was my favourite photograph of that day.

The most recent set of images almost never happened. I spent the previous evening climbing Ben Nevis. I made it back down at around a midnight; it was immediately obvious that I was going to be back home insanely late and the sunrise was just a few hours away. My initial plan was to stop at Rannoch Moor, another great sunrise location. Unfortunately, heavy rolling clouds in the east made me quickly abandon these plans. I continued towards Glasgow and at the last moment decided to take a detour via Kilchurn castle and Inverary. I am very glad I did because the cloud cover there was very reasonable.

Without hesitation I traversed the swamp and setup in my favourite spot. Fine mist was rising over the water; this time it didn’t obscure the view to the castle and the hills. In a few more moments the clouds were illuminated with yellow, orange and pink hues. However, there was no sunlight – yet.

It took a while before the sunshine broke through the clouds. Initially it lit up one hill, then another before retreating behind a thick sheet of cumulus. As usual, the waiting game dragged on for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually the desired moment arrived when the golden morning light illuminated the castle in a spotlight. Even more excitingly, the hills in the background were dramatically lit by a few distinct rays of sunshine. The clouds still retained a hint of that glorious warm colour while the lake water was perfectly still with just a hint of a mist. With no strong foreground features along the shore it was obvious to stick with a mirror composition. I intentionally positioned the castle slightly off-centre to lead the viewers eye from the left to the right. The composition was primarily dictated by the main character of the image – the light.

With every second the light intensified and became more uniform: the magic was quickly lost. The final image was once again found at the same tree hump on the shore. As I walked through the swamp the mist filtered sunlight once again caught my attention. The sun was drawing lines on the reeds sprinkled with pearls of dew. Despite having already packed the gear I found it irresistible to record a few more photographs. The final image was made by blending two different exposures due to an extreme dynamic range of the scene.

While I am already pleased with the three sets of images I will certainly consider photographing the castle later in the winter with snow cover on the mountains. Almost certainly it won’t be easy to find exactly what I imagine as the perfect view. However it is the adventure and process that make photography so exciting and rewarding.

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