Wildlife photography in the Scottish Highlands

When it comes to getting to grips with wildlife photography, the Scottish Highlands make a great option for getting shots of impressive species  in their natural environment. Following a recent series of shoots up in the Cairngorms National Park, the Isle Of Skye and the Applecross peninsula, here are a few of our shots and some notes for budding photographers.

Scotland is home to a huge abundance of wildlife and if you know when and where to find it you can get some stunning images of deer, birds of prey and other rare birds, grey seals, sea mammals and the illusive otter. Not all of these are easy to find, so we’ll be updating this post as we tick off more of them, but for now here are our thoughts on the basics of wildlife photography and some of the easier species to find and photograph in the Scottish Islands.

We didn’t manage to get shots of everything we wanted to during our assignment in the Highlands, but we did manage to see and photograph seals, some of Scotland’s natural birdlife and a little group of deer. I’ll be heading back up during the winter to take more shots of the wildlife we didn’t catch during the first outing, which will include the amazing ptarmigan, along with the golden eagle, sea eagle, pine martin and capercaillie.

Grey seal

Wildlife photography of grey seal and pup in the Highland sea lochs

The best way to see these is to head out on a boat to get close enough to photograph them. Grey seals huddle together on the rocks out in the open sea lochs, like Loch Alsh and their are boat tours to their little island retreats from Portree and Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. They’re pretty happy to pose for some great shots and they don’t tend to move around too quickly, so you should be able to take your time to get some good shots if the boat isn’t moving too fast.

Highland deer

Wildlife photography stag shot

Highland deer are much more illusive than you might think. You may think the land is teaming with them, but their semi nocturnal, keep clear of human contact and have great camouflage, so you’ll be lucky to catch them. If you’re prepared to spend a while trying to track them down, you’ll need to head out either early morning or in the evening.

The Alvie and Dalraddy Estates in the Cairngorms have wild stag expeditions and the Braemar Highland Safaris are good options to tap into local guide knowledge to get close to the deer.

Ptarmigan

Highland Wildlife photography ptarmigan feather

You may not know this stunning Highland grouse all that well, but it’s one of my favourite birds. Magically it changes the colour of its feathers between the warmer and colder seasons, with patchy brown grey and white feathers in the summer months, which transform into all white when the snow falls. This might sound a little fantastical, but it’s 100% true as they have a pretty fearsome predator up in the mountains of Scotland in the golden eagle, which hunts them all year round, so their camouflage is incredibly important to their survival.

Sadly, I didn’t manage to get to see a ptarmigan during my summer trip up the trails of Mount Cairngorm, so all I got was the artful shot above of one of its feathers, but I’ll be heading up again to cover a wider ground in the winter to see them in their all white coats. On the target list of shot locations is a return to both the ski lodge car park and Ptarmigan Cafe on Mount Cairngorm, and I’ll be trying out the long hike up Carn Ban Mor.

Woodland birds

Highland Wildlife photography siskin

Scotland is home to a rich variety of woodland birds, especially in the last remnants of the great pine forests that once dominated the landscape. This includes everything from large dark masses of the capercaillie to the small and colourful siskin (pictured above). You can also see the incredibly cute coal tit, like the slightly scruffy guy below, which I was lucky enough to catch getting distracted by a fly circling overhead.

Wildlife photography coal tit

The rarest of them all is the crested tit, but you’ll have to be very lucky to be able to catch one. All of these can be spotted relatively easily in Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms, one of the biggest remaining natural pine forests in the Highlands. While birds like the coal tit and siskin will be drawn to the capercaillie and the crested tit are much more illusive. To try to see the capercaillie, you’ll need to set out early, but in the case of the crested tit it’s all about patience and timing. Winter is the best time of the year to see them in action, as they feed from lower down in the forest more.

You can see more of the shots that we managed to get in the highlands on our wildlife photographer page, including a regal looking swallow, the incredibly photogenic cotton grass, a toad hiding in the grass, a basking red admiral butterfly and an oyster catcher on its throne. We’ll update with more from the wintery session we have planned.

The basics of wildlife photography

If you’re interested in nature and you want to try your hand at your own wildlife photography, the first job is investing in the kit to nudge you in the right direction. If you’ve already got a DSLR and you’ve struggled to get good images of wildlife, chances are it’s down to zoom, so having a good telephoto lens is an important thing to consider. While you can still get wildlife shots with smaller lenses, the animals you’re photographing will feel far away, sometimes even minuscule, as getting close to wildlife without it running off in time to take a picture isn’t easy.

The lens that we use is the Sigma 100-600mm, which gives us a solid zoom platform to keep a good distance from the animals and still get close up portraits, which you can see in the shots above. However, other useful basic tips include using burst photography, auto focus tracking and continuous focus, fast shutter speeds and mid-high ISO in order to compensate for the possibility of movement and low light.