Scotland’s Finest: Colin Prior

Scotland’s best-known photographer first picked up a camera aged 23, and soon won an underwater photography competition. Recognising he had a talent, Colin sought tuition but was advised his photographs proved he didn’t need it.

The inspirational self-taught Scottish photographer talks about his favourite past projects, how to take definitive photographs of mountains, his concerns about the future of the natural world, and his current projects – an ultimate collection of Scottish panoramas and a book of photographs capturing his dream mountain range: the Karakoram in Pakistan.

Colin Prior Sm

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CP: Much of my childhood was spent alone in the woods and farmland around where we lived, on the outskirts of Glasgow. At 21, I looked at my peers: many had achieved sporting and academic success and wide social networks. I had spent my time in the natural world observing birds and animals, and concluded that I had a largely useless skill set: what could I put on a CV?

As time went on I began to recognise that my observations had accumulated an encompassing knowledge about nature that I’m convinced only few people have. Photography became a conduit through which I could communicate my feelings about the natural world, which is constantly evolving: I’m just at the beginning of a new genre of work.

I was privileged to shoot calendars for British Airways in the mid 90s – I don’t believe anyone will ever commission travel photography on this scale again. I travelled to 40 countries to photograph a diverse selection of habitats and cultures. For a young photographer from Scotland it was a dream job.

I particularly enjoyed photographing the pristine beaches of the Seychelles, the orange dunes of the Namib-Naukluft desert and the masked dances of Bhutan, before it was discovered as a tourist destination. But it was the Karakoram Mountains that began to haunt my dreams, and I knew I had to go back. These unique mountains reveal little bits about their character in fleeting moments, which create such a sense of awe and wonder that it tests all we know.

“Do the due diligence – recce the area and get there at dusk or dawn and try to avoid the clichés that every other photographer shoots. There are infinite possibilities in photography – find you own photographs.”

Last year I had the chance to begin to fulfill my life’s dream, and over the next few years I will document the Karakoram region in a way never previously attempted. The harsh and unforgiving environment is a constant challenge to survive in, and weather patterns are erratic, with clear blue skies often p as problematic as a low cloud base. One simply has to continually revise the expectation and accordingly, the subject matter.

The perfect landscape photograph for me is a fusion between light and land. A rare convergence when the light transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.

These days a photograph can be taken with no knowledge of photography. There comes a point however, when photographers hit the glass ceiling. In short, they want to be the master and not the slave – they need to control the camera and not the other way around.

The first step in taking a definitive photograph of mountains is reconnaissance. There’s no shortcut for climbing up there and looking at the lie of the land. It’s during this process that the ‘firing point’ and the approximate time of the year when I plan to return are selected. By this time an image already exists in my ‘mind’s eye.

The second stage is meticulous checking of everything required for an overnight stay on the mountain, if required. The final part is simple: wait for a weather window – and strike following the modus operandi of Special Forces. Stack all the odds in your favour.

It has taken me years to finally capture some of the images that existed in my mind. What is significantly different about my new book, Scotland’s Finest Landscapes is the depth of work, which spans a period of 25 years.

It has taken this period of time to reach the point where I can, for example, include a panorama of the Cuillin Ridge shot from Blaven; and, on the following page, show the view in reverse. For those familiar with the mountain tops this ‘ultimate collection’ will give additional pleasure.

I’ve spent much of my working life alone in nature, and I believe it is facing an unprecedented assault as the human population continues to grow. With limited natural resources there will be even greater pressure on eco-systems around the globe, and without greater intervention it seems inevitable that extinctions will follow. However, there have been some notable successes, such as the whale moratorium, as evidence that if there’s a will there’s a way.

In Scotland, we are fortunate to have large tracts of wild land but let’s not forget that these are man made wildernesses and in reality support little but red deer. I am greatly encouraged by the re-forestation of indigenous woodland in parts of the Highlands, which in time will kick-start an entire ecosystem. It would be great to see a network of corridors that link up throughout Scotland.

Wildlife needs our help. I plan to devote my next project towards some of these goals, beginning with an exploration of the landscape of bird habitats, both to break new ground photographically and to raise awareness of the demise of wild bird populations.