How landscape photo awards encourage novel angles on Scotland

Almost cancelled due to the pandemic, the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year awards continue to push the nation’s best snappers in exciting new directions, writes Roger Cox

"Storm Ciara at Elgol" by Tony Higginson, winner of the seascape category

The evolution of the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year awards has been fascinating to watch. When professional photographer Stuart Low first set up the scheme in 2015, it felt like a genuine breath of fresh air – a very deliberate attempt to move away from the same old views shot in the same old style – and it has continued to celebrate the pushing of boundaries ever since.

A deliberately broad church, the awards have categories for landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes and treescapes, and there is also a “Your Vision " award, which recognises excellence in digital editing.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

A good example of how all-encompassing the awards have become, and the extent to which they have continued to reward original thinking, is a picture by James Woodend which came second in the Your Vision category last year. A close-up of a rusting steel barrier on the Isle of Harris, purists would probably argue it wasn’t a landscape photograph at all. However, as Woodend points out “like many macro shots of man-made structures, it strangely echoes the natural environment” and true enough, if you look at it for a few moments you begin to realise that it is indeed a landscape in miniature – a line of shadow running from one side of the image to the other reads like a mountain range, while the small patches of rust which dot its surface could perhaps be falling snowflakes, or the leaves of a weeping willow in the foreground. It has all the subtlety and atmosphere of a Japanese woodblock print – and yet, in reality, it’s just a picture of a piece of rusty old metal.

Colourful Reflection in Victoria Street, by Moumita Paul, winner of the urban award

Of course, an awards scheme is at the mercy of the entries it receives, and there was always a chance that, over time, high volumes of technically proficient but creatively middle-of-the-road images could start to drown out the more interesting, off-the-wall contributions. Based on the winners of the 2021 awards, however, announced earlier this month, there’ s little danger of that happening any time soon.

The urban category is always a good place to look for novel takes on well-kent views, and Mark Elliot (highly commended) certainly takes the cake in this regard. Everyone and their granny knows the view from Edinburgh’s Calton Hill looking past the Dugald Stewart Monument towards the Balmoral Hotel and Edinburgh Castle, and for many years most photographers have understandably chosen to shoot to the south-west from this vantage point, focusing on the sandstone symphony of the Old Town while cutting out the uninspiring office blocks at the top of Leith Walk and either the carbuncle of the old St James Centre or, more recently, the building site that replaced it. Rather than try and hide this contrast, however, Elliot celebrates it: he shoots the scene at night with the monument dead centre, so that it splits the city perfectly in two: the mellow yellow Old Town on the left, the starkly-lit cranes and scaffolding of the half-finished St James Quarter to the right. The title? “Always Old Town, New Town.”

Such compositional creativity is common to many of this year’s award-winners, from Sheana Cameron (commended), who uses a mosaic of floating reeds as an oddly hypnotic foreground for a misty picture of Loch Awe to Tony Higginson (also commended), who shoots Ardvreck Castle in Assynt in reference to nearby rock formations that seem to echo its distinctive shape. However, there is still room for images that capture those rare moments when light and landscape combine to create something magical: Marc Pickering won the landscape category with his photograph First Light, Loch Ederline, in which a low-angled shaft of sunlight slices atmospherically through a patch of mist floating above the loch.

The awards are now in their seventh year, and were almost at the point of closing down when the pandemic took hold, Low recalls. “With travel restrictions mounting up, then eventually a full lockdown, I knew it was impossible for photographers to travel around to capture images so I feared no one would enter. I was about to wind things up but so many photographers urged me to keep going... I knew I couldn’t let them down so I went ahead, albeit with a fair amount of trepidation.”

First light, Loch Ederline, by Marc Pickering, winner of the landscape award

In the end, the 2021 awards attracted over 3,000 entries, and the competition was given a much needed boost, too, in the form of continued support from existing sponsors The John Muir Trust and Permajet and also a new sponsorship deal with Bonnie & Wild – a three-year agreement that will see the winning images displayed at a permanent exhibition in Edinburgh’s new, soon to open St James Quarter. Mark Elliot’s picture, in particular, should look good there.

For more on the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year Awards, and to see all the winning entries, visit www.slpoty.co.uk

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

The 'At Last' Lighthouse, by Stephen Robbie, runner-up in the portfolio category

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions

In the Clouds, Sgurr nan Gillean, Isle of Skye, by Sophie Schneeberger