There are so many reasons to spend some time in Shetland – be it the many miles of spectacular coastline, the patchwork of crofts and heathery hills, the world-class wildlife, the rich cultural heritage… the list goes on. There’s truly something here for everybody. And for someone armed with a camera, there’s an embarrassment of riches to explore and play with.
The varied landscape is often the first thing to strike the visitor to our islands. Not for nothing is Shetland an international Geopark – the physical geography is remarkably diverse, with dramatic sea-cliffs of many colours, sandy tombolos forming beaches with the sea on either side of the isthmus, fertile areas of emerald-green fields and rocky outcrops, and dramatic evidence of the ancient passage of glaciers.
The potential for landscape photography is considerable. With no airborne pollution the quality of light year-round is tremendous; and in the theatre of the fractured coastline wild winter storms offer the chance of spectacular wave action.
At 60 degrees north, Shetland lies at a latitude conducive to sightings of the beautiful aurora borealis, or northern lights. Of course, the night sky needs to be largely cloud-free for this great spectacle to be fully appreciated… but when the necessary solar activity coincides with suitable conditions, the opportunities for aurora photography are limited only by the photographer’s imagination in a landscape packed with sea and fresh water bodies, interesting silhouettes, and in most locations no light pollution whatsoever.
Sometimes, of course, a little light pollution is very welcome indeed! Every January, Lerwick douses the street lights for Up Helly Aa, and is lit by the flaming brands of up to 1,000 guizers marching through our midst. When the Viking galley is finally set alight, the heat can be felt on our faces – and the opportunity for one-of-a-kind Viking fire festival photographs is unparalleled. There are a number of further Up Helly Aa festivals throughout Shetland in the following weeks, with some galleys even burned on the sea.
During the long days of summer, the islands are thronged with breeding birds. The coast is home to internationally important numbers of seabirds, including large numbers of charismatic species such as Puffins and Gannets. The infrastructure for the visiting photographer to get close to these birds is impressive, from land and sea alike – the redeveloped RSPB reserve at Sumburgh Head is both convenient and readily accessible; and there are a number of boat operators offering regular trips from Lerwick out to the towering cliffs of Noss.
Inland, wildflower meadows and upland moorlands play host to a multitude of photogenic wading birds, and many opportunities for those with a macro lens to explore the world of fauna in close-up. Shetland is also justly famous for providing the visiting naturalist – and hence, wildlife photographer – with the opportunity to enjoy world-class encounters with marine mammals. Both Common and Grey Seals are found here in good numbers, and are often particularly confiding. Whales and dolphins, while ever unpredictable, are always a huge draw for visitors and locals alike. It’s not unusual in the summer to find the shores lined with folk taking photos of Killer Whales hunting seals just offshore.
Any summary of Shetland’s wildlife riches would be incomplete without mention of the resident population of Otters. These charming and photogenic mammals are found around our shores year-round in a nationally high population density. With good fieldcraft, and in particular with the local knowledge and assistance of one of a number of local guides, close encounters may be enjoyed. You might have to get a little damp as you track them along the shore… but you’ll come away with photographs that will make it all worthwhile.
There’s never a dull moment for the photographer in Shetland; at every time of year there’s something to see, and often in circumstances that could be matched in few other places. Come armed with plenty of memory cards and an eye for an arresting image, and you won’t go away disappointed. And you’ll probably be back again before too long!