What to pack for a photography retreat in the Scottish islands... | Lightning in a bottle

What to pack for a photography retreat in the Scottish islands…

February 20, 2020
In November 2019, I filmed Margaret Soraya’s photography retreat in Harris; it was my first visit to this remote island in Scotland.

What NOT to take to a photography retreat on the Scottish islands… and some things you should….

Are you guilty of overpacking and taking the proverbial kitchen sink with you when travelling? I certainly am. When I went to the Isle of Harris last November I knew by the time I’d walked to the end of my road to the station I’d taken too much, but it was too late to go back, and I had no idea what I could leave at home.

I realised at the end of my trip that I hadn’t used at least a third of what I’d packed.

I thought everything I took would be essential, but my back, arms and legs felt like they would fall apart after just a few minutes of dragging all my gear. I was pretty lucky my 11 hour train journey was fairly unbroken, but I still wish I could have travelled way lighter! At the end of the trip I worked out that around a third of what I’d taken wasn’t quite right for an Outer Hebridean trip, or was downright useless.

So what would I leave at home next time?

THE WRONG CLOTHES

Seriously, on a trip like this you want to be warm, and dry. I just took normal clothes, but I have Raynaud’s syndrome, and I discovered to my cost that quite a few of my everyday wear didn’t really cut it on a trip like this. My feet and fingers were so cold that I was actually incapable of filming or taking a photo on some days and I ended up shivering in the van.

Margaret Soraya has a great page on what gear to consider taking (link below this article), definitely check her page out if you’re thinking of buying stuff, but I’ll put here what I’m taking. I’m a sort of size 12/14 with size 5 feet and pretty curvy if that helps!

So what are the right clothes?

Layers,  layers and  layers.

This was probably one of the few things I did right —I took lots of thin long-sleeved shirts which I was able to wear over each other. Mine are just my regular ones but you can buy thermal tops and leggings in most outdoor shops if you have money to spare. I also have a couple of fleece jackets I absolutely love. I look a bit like a teddy bear with one of them, the Ayacucho one, and the other one is a plainer one by  Didrikson, with a velvet inner… ooh…

Ayacucho Beauty Jacket | I look like a teddy bear with this on, but it keeps me really warm and snug…
I find the Didrikson Mikaela fleece is really warm and also flattering on my curvy figure.

A really, REALLY good jacket

I went with a regular coat last time—big mistake. I had looked at some dedicated hiking jackets and nearly fainted seeing prices of £320 and higher.  Fortunately Margaret lent me a waterproof to cover it, but they’re particularly warm. But I learnt this is one area you can’t really skimp on if you’re going to be standing or walking around in the cold and wet for any length of time. 

This time around I’m taking a RAB Valliance jacket (you can get a parka if you prefer a longer version). It’s amazing, pretty water-resistant and sooo warm. Margaret also has one of these and she told me her last trip the weather was so bad, if she hadn’t this jacket she wouldn’t have been able to go out. What better recommendation than that?

The Rab Valliance jacket or parka is a fantastic outdoor option for women.

Wellies

My Aigle Aiglentine faux fur-lined wellington boots are soooo comfortable…

Yeah. If you’re looking forward to taking photos of the waves on the beach, you’re gonna need wellies. One of the guys on the last trip decided they were too big for his suitcase and he really regretted it. It took days to find a pair in a shop for him, and then they turned out to leak. Mine were waterproof and foldable, but were too tight to wear with thick socks, so my feet froze and they didn’t have great grip. I’ve bought a new pair, the Aigle Aiglentine, which come up a teeny bit large, but absolutely perfect for wearing with really thick socks. They’ve got fake fur lining, a plus for me, luckily they are quite tight on the calves so hopefully no water will get in even if I get soaked. And that leads me on to…

Thick socks.

I bought mine in a sale in TK Maxx for £3.50 each but I don’t think it matters, as long as you’re comfortable and they’re thick, so you don’t get blisters from walking. I don’t recommend layering socks (I’ve tried this), they just feel too tight!

Gloves

You wanna get these right. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’m going with two pairs of gloves, a thinner e-tip pair, by North Face and a thicker pair to wear over the top of them.

These e-tip gloves from North Face are pretty good, I didn’t need to take them off to operate my phone camera.
I really like the look of these Sealskinz hunting gloves for keeping your hands warm.

I like the look of Sealskinz but they’re quite expensive. But the reality is you’re going to find you want to take them off to fine-tune your camera settings, and then you’re gonna get cold. And there’s no point putting cold hands into cold gloves, especially if you have Raynaud’s, so  you’ll want some…

(Rechargeable) hand warmers

Seriously, I would buy these in bulk. I borrowed so many off Margaret on my last trip I considered buying some shares in Little Hotties. You press them and they just get hot and sometimes for hours. But it was a bit hit and miss if they worked, so this time I’m taking a rechargeable one that I borrowed off another traveller last time, this one’s made by OCOOPA.

I used so many of these I think I should have bought shares in Little Hotties!
This OCOOPA rechargeable hand warmer is perfect for my hands which get cold easily.

Walking boots

This was another of my good decisions. I have a pair of Scarpa brown walking boots and they were fantastic, I put in some insoles as my arches ache if I walk a lot in them.  

These Scarpa walking boots are warm and comfortable and have good grip on the soles.

Waterproof trousers

I’ve just seen the weather forecast for when I’m going and I just decided to get this ‘Firewall’ pair from RAB. They aren’t the cheapest, but they’re stretchy, have zips almost all the way up, and the lining is really well made, so it won’t rip the first time you put your feet in or take them out.

I like these RAB Firewall waterproof pants as they’re stretchy and have long zips at the side.

I also have a pair of ACAI thermal trousers and they’re wonderfully comfortable as well as water resistant, and have a fleece inner lining. It means I can take my regular jeans and feel more relaxed in the evening and get out of my ‘special cold weather’ clothes.

ACAI Thermal Skinny Outdoor Trousers Black

The Acai Thermal Skinny Outdoor trousers are comfortable, water resistant and warm.

TOO MUCH STUFF

All your lenses

Please don’t take every lens you own or hundreds of primes. On a beach with biting winds, you want to change as few lenses as possible so you don’t get any crap in them. For video I genearlly use a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm, which will pretty much cover everything I need for filming, as I want to people in my footage. But for photography, just take what you need to get the photos you want, and if you want close-ups of waves, I’d treat them like animals on a safari and take the longest telephoto you can. When I did a safari in Africa I never once used my 24-70mm, I only used my telephoto and my widest angle lens, but it really does come down to taste and what you want to achieve in your photos.

But you will want ND filters and a remote release trigger or cable if you’re going for those dreamy long exposure photos.

Your most expensive and heaviest tripod

Leave. This. At. Home. I  have an amazing Really Right Stuff tripod, solid as a rock. I figured I’d need a really sturdy and heavy tripod for the windy beach and I couldn’t have actually been more wrong. I lost the will to carry it after scrambling over dunes and rocks and it became a health hazard as I couldn’t move freely. 

My tripod also cost me an arm and a leg. If you’re on the beach it’ll get totally filled with sea water and sand. Even if you wash them out every trip, you may end up having to take it apart to clean up, so I’d pick a cheap one, which is easy to take apart. Mine is now a really old Manfrotto 055MF3 carbon fibre with click-lock legs, which I find easier to manipulate in the cold. It  has a central column so you can weigh it down with a backpack if it’s windy. I would recommend using Ebay to find a tripod you won’t miss too much if it corrodes with time.

Look for a cheap tripod on Ebay, so you won’t cry when it gets covered in sea and sand…

THE WRONG LUGGAGE

What I missed most on my last trip was a smaller pack, something I could wear and actually walk and run about in on the beach. I stupidly only took the one with all my gear, and I just lost the will to move every time I looked at it and fortunately I was able to borrow a smaller one from Margaret. 

This time around I’ve decided to take a fairly long soft bag which has a base, and wheels, and which will allow me to pack my tripod in it, rather than having to carry it separately. I know for me, two bags is enough.

The Tresspass Aurora Double Decker rolling duffle is perfect for fitting all my gear in, and the tripod!

I found I need the bigger backpack for travelling, especially for flights, where you want to take your valuable stuff on with you, but this time I’m packing a smaller pack inside my rolling duffle. The daypack has enough space for one camera with a lens on, and a few batteries, and on a longer hike it means I can focus on moving about rather than carrying my bag.

AND WHAT I WOULD TAKE

Little things that make all the difference

Finally I’m going to suggest a few little things that don’t take up much space, but I know they made all the difference to my last trip, and I’ll be taking this time around.

Head or hand torch

If you’re doing any golden hour dawn or dusk shots (and I think it’s probably a pre-requisite of most photography holidays), you’ll appreciate being able to see where you’re going in the dark before or after you finish. A head torch is good if you need to be hands free. Mine is from Petzl.

Petzl make a variety of head torches to choose from.

Map 

I was so happy I found a map of Harris in Inverness train station before I set off for there. Even better it was a tourist map, rather than an Ordnance Survey map, which made it easier to place yourself in context. I’ve since bought the Orkney one for my next trip.

Power banks

I can’t do without these for filming, but they’re pretty useful for so many things. I have a larger one which will power a phone several times over in a single charge and a smaller one that fits in my pocket. Mine are by Aukey and RAVPOWER, I’ve had them for years; they’re super reliable.

My Aukey charger lasts for ages and also comes with a handy case to hold your cables and leads.

And finally… a notebook and pen

I’m so glad I took this. I kept a note of interesting places, and journalled what I did, how I felt and what I learnt. Several months on, it’s been a joy to read back what I did, and it’s also helped inspire some blog ideas to help others thinking of doing something similar.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and everyone is different, so I’d love to hear in the comments if there’s anything you really regretted taking, or found particularly useful in wet and cold remote locations like Orkney or Harris in the Scottish Highlands.

Heather is a professional photographer and filmmaker who is passionate about travel and specialises in producing video and photographic content for social media. If you’d like to know more about how I can help you with your social media content,  please get in touch via my contact form.

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