Hello from Scotland 👋🏻 as I am writing this post on the last day of our third trip to this amazing place. It has become a bit of a tradition to escape our home for New Year's and head out somewhere to a desolate place with a beautiful landscape. I can't think of many places better suited for that purpose than Scotland. On this trip, we are spending time in the northern part, after having explored the southern Highlands and Islands on our two previous journeys.
Scotland has its own color palette
The colors of Scotland speak to me. The muted greens, reddish browns, greys, and blues make a wonderful winter palette that has a calming effect. We've only ever been here in winter, where the white of the occasional snow completes Scotland's base landscape colors. Don't come to Scotland if you are looking for hard contrast between colors, like the deep yellow of tropical beaches against the intense greens of palm trees, overshadowed by strong blues in the sky above. This part of the world is about colors that sit right next to each other, with boundaries between them slowly giving way until one color is no more as it has become another, but it is hard to tell where that transition took place. The way the colors interact with each other always reminds me of the Dutch and Flemish master painters from the 17th century. Do an image search on that and you will see what I mean when you compare the color palette of the paintings to the photos in this post.
Moves at its own pace
Another thing that speaks for Scotland is how it provides perspective. Like Iceland and Norway, and I am sure many other places where I haven't been to yet, where mankind has not completely dominated the landscape, Scotland welcomes you but it is clear it has other things on its mind but humans. This is a place that moves at a different pace. The geological movement of its land mass is more present than the latest thing to pop up on social media. Once you head out into the highlands or islands, life immediately slows down. Or maybe I should say it re-calibrates, to a pace that somehow feels more natural.
No driving on auto-pilot
Take driving for instance. When you have road infrastructure around you every day that is aimed at high efficiency for commuters, you look at the distance in kilometers and you project the time you need to get to your destination with eerie precision, especially in the age of GPS and real-time traffic information. It doesn't work that way in Scotland, or at least outside of the main cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The roads don't allow high speeds at all. Many roads are single-lane, with 'passing places' every few hundred meters. And even if there is more than one lane to drive on, nature lets you know that other users of its land have priority. Sheep and deer have the right of way. This means you must be very alert at all times, which makes for a different driving experience. And I am not even talking about the distractions you face from the stunning landscapes after every corner. Slow is good. Like the Italians with the slow food movement that started in the late 80s as a response to the rise of fast food everywhere, the Scottish have their take on the benefits of a slow life.
I brought a Pentax!?
Let's talk about camera gear. On my first two trips to Scotland, I shot mostly with Leica. I have returned to Leica (you can read more on that here), but I stepped into a new camera ecosystem recently, and I thought it a good idea to bring my new setup to Scotland. Pentax cameras have always intrigued me. They have their philosophy and stick to it, something to be respected. We live in a world of many options, but when you look closer, there seems to be not much choice at all. Most car manufacturers build a slightly different version of the same bloated SUV cross-over in various sizes. But they are all alike. Things are a little better in the world of photography with Fuji taking a different approach compared to Sony for instance, in terms of ergonomics, sensor, and lens choices. But the real oddball remains Pentax. Well, and Leica, but that is not the topic of this post. Not long after Pentax was bought by Ricoh, they released a statement that they will stay true to the DSRL. They recently even announced looking into developing a whole new film camera. I think this can only be applauded. We need more real options.
A view through a mirror
The reason I turned to Pentax was that I missed the experience of shooting with a DSLR. After years of shooting with mirrorless cameras, I felt a bit numbed by the 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get' perspective of the EVF. It has many benefits but at times, it felt as if created more distance between what I was photographing. I also craved a more rugged camera body and the stories about the ergonomics of Pentax sparked my interest enough to look into it. After holding a K-1 (mk2) for the first time, I was sold. The dials are super efficient en easy enough to operate, even with thick winter gloves. I also like the setup with a top dial on the right that has many different selection options like ISO or exposure compensation, which you can change with another dial. With a dial for aperture and shutter speed, you can control anything you need with your shooting hand.
The shooting experience on mirrorless cameras can be a little muted. Not so with the Pentax K-1. The mirror release gives this nice and clunky mechanical sound. It offers live view but it is mostly useless as the camera is barely able to focus this way. On some occasions, you can use it for manual focus but you are better off sticking to the bright OVF. There is just something about the K-1 body that makes me want to pick it up. It is smaller compared to many full-frame Pro DSLRs from Nikon or Canon but is definitely beefy, especially compared to a mirrorless camera. The 36-megapixel sensor may be a bit older but it delivers wonderful clarity, even for 2023 standards. It even has sensor stabilization. I am used to 24-megapixel sensors, and I am finding the extra pixels quite nice to work with. Given that the K-1 mk2 dates from 2018, you can pick these up for a good price new or used, and I think this camera represents unbelievable value for money.
The other main reason to step into the Pentax ecosystem was their set of 'limited' lenses. Some of these come from the film era and have been optimized for the digital era, while others have been released more recently (the 21mm for instance). Contrary to the K-1 body which is clunky (in a good way) and relatively heavy at just under a kilo, the limited lenses are incredibly small and light (the 43mm only weighs 155 grams). This makes the combination of the camera body and lenses very competitive, compared to mirrorless options when it comes to weight. The limited lenses are beautifully made. All metal with a distance indicator and most have an aperture ring. They all use the focusing motor of the body instead of having an internal focusing motor. This creates some minor noise but that doesn't bother me too much. They are not a good option if you need to be stealthy. I love these lenses. I own and brought the 21mm F2.4, the 43mm F1.9m, and the 77mm F1.8, with me to Scotland. The 33mm F1.8 is also a great lens but that is too close to my Leica Q. The thing about the limited lenses is that they make me want to pick them up and shoot with them. Not unlike my Leica gear.
43 is the new 35
My favorite lens of the Pentax limited series is probably the 43mm F1.9. It is so incredibly small and fits nicely on the K-1. It creates clear and crisp images and the maximum aperture is bright enough for nice subject isolation when you need it. I am starting to enjoy the 40-ish perspective as a single focal length. Wider than a 50mm, but just a bit more focused compared to a 35mm, this 43mm is a great lens for everyday shooting. On my Leica M10 I mostly shoot with the 35mm Summilux but if the M system had frame lines for 40mm, I might be tempted to shoot that on the M as well. I already mentioned that the 43mm weighs barely anything. It doesn't seem to compromise on image quality, that is for sure. I know F1.9 isn't incredibly fast but for 95% of shots, it is all you need. After years of ultra-fast and heavy lenses in the mirrorless world, it is great to see that more lightweight options are available. The Sony trio of 24, 40, and 50mm is one example, Nikon released a 28mm F2.8, a 40mm F2 I really like, and Sigma makes a few others. None of those feel as well made as the Pentax, though.
The K-1 is indestructible. Well, almost.
The K-1 gets a lot of love in the Pentax community for its ruggedness and weather sealing. I've seen videos of people burying it under a pile of dirt, only to rinse it off under the shower. The K-1 just keeps working. On this trip, I've had my own unwanted test of the K-1's ruggedness. My tripod is at the end of its life, with not everything being as tight as it once was. I was setting up for a long exposure shot of a waterfall and you can guess what happened. From about 1,5 meters up, the K-1 slipped off the tripod and hit the viewing platform we were on. Hard. Fortunately, it landed on the body and not the lens. There were some scratches but everything works fine. Except for the interesting spider legs of the pop-out screen. Two of them popped out of their rails but the internet assured me that I can fix that with a screwdriver and a bit of pressure. I wasn't looking to test the destructibility of the K-1 but it feels good to know the camera can take a beating.
Boggy and soggy
Back to Scotland. What never ceases to amaze me when traveling this country in the wintertime, is the wetness that is everywhere. I am not talking about the rain or snow, but the wetness in the ground. When going out hiking, you need to navigate deeper puddles in the marsh, but with waterproof shoes, this is not a problem. How did they do this hundreds of years ago? People would have had everlasting wet feet, all the time. I can imagine people in Greece or Turkey with the kind of clothing options available around let's say 1000 AD, but to be living in Scotland at that time must have been something else. Locals told us the sogginess is not just a winter phenomenon but that many parts are like this the whole year round.
The Scottish weather is in charge
Related to the soaking top layer of Scottish soil, is of course the weather. Yes, it rains a lot. But in the times that we've been here, the weather also changed a lot. We have not had a lot of all-day rain days, and even if there was a shower, the wind took care of that quickly enough. These fast-changing conditions act as a kind of Director of Photography on a film set. All props and actors are there, but the DoP lights the scene to make it come alive. This is what the weather does to the Scottish landscape. Every change in weather brings out a different atmosphere. Dark and cloudy weather, with a bit of sun, emphasizes the deep browns, whereas the sun against a clear(ish) sky brings out the greens. It never ceases to amaze me how different the Scottish landscape looks under different conditions.
The truth is in the cask
No post about Scotland can be complete without mentioning whisky, the golden sap of the locals. Even though whisky is distilled everywhere in the world with notable whisky production in Ireland, Japan, and the US, the true heart of whisky is in Scotland. Almost every hotel and pub or restaurant carries a large collection of local whisky, as I am sure is the case in many Scottish homes as well.
The whisky-making process needs moisture and there is plenty of that around. The color and taste of whisky also carry a strong connection to the Scottish land. The deep amber of whisky fits well against the muted tones of its birthplace. We were able to visit the Singleton distillery where we learned once again that haste is not a good thing when making whisky. It fits with this slower pace of life that focuses on doing fewer things well and taking the time it needs.
Bucket list material
Scotland definitely qualifies as travel bucket list material as far as I am concerned. If you have the opportunity to visit Scotland, please do so. You won't be disappointed. Next to those waterproof shoes, don't forget to bring a camera, you'll need one!