Black Dots: Exploring the British Isles with a Large Format Camera

As the winds charge through the mountain pass it takes every effort to forge onwards as your feet slip and your ankles twist. Rivulets soak the track ahead and the sodden-peat moulds itself around your boots. You trudge on under the watchful eyes of a Stag who appears un-phased by this sudden arrival of foul weather.

Descending from the exposed munros and into the shelter of a glen, you trace the burn: in spate and unfordable. In fading light you identify a small building; four stone walls, a metal roof and a single chimney stack on one end.

This is a bothy.

Far from civilization and mostly accessible only by foot, these secluded mountain shelters are scattered across the British Isles, tirelessly maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothies Association. Unlocked and free to use, they provide a refuge from the vast terrain that surrounds them and have rapidly become an iconic feature of the British Landscape over the past fifty years.

Bothies are synonymous with the outdoor experience here in the UK, and from day trippers to seasoned mountaineers the growing community of bothy users is hugely diverse.

These tiny stone-tents offer us the opportunity to delve deeper into our natural spaces, to break away from the norm and to immerse ourselves in the landscape in a truly extraordinary and unique way. Their primitive aesthetic and lack of facilities (no electricity, running water, or WiFi here!) might take some getting used to, but it’s not long before the whisky is being shared around, tales are being told and the fire is roaring… providing you carried in enough fuel, that is.

Born out of curiosity, ‘Black Dots’ is the result of two years spent exploring the British Isles in an attempt to better understand what these buildings are, where they’re located, and the culture that surrounds them.

Beginning in April 2015, in the fells of the English Lake District, my journey has taken me to some of the of the most remote and breath-taking landscapes that the UK has to offer: from the rugged coastal hideaways of Cape Wrath on the northern reaches of the mainland to the dark evergreen woods of Central Wales.

Deciding to photograph this project on large format 5×4, the process hasn’t been easy. Large Format probably isn’t the most practical choice of camera system given the terrain, distance, and conditions that you must endure in order to reach these locations.

Couple that with the fact that the camera, lenses, light meter, darkslides, loupe, tripod, and DSLR (I’d also carry a D810 with one lens to capture behind the scenes content) must somehow be accompanied in the pack by all of the necessary outdoor kit—additional layers, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, food & water, stove, firewood, and coal—and the sheer weight of the pack alone was sometimes enough to doubt the successful outcome of the work.

So why 5×4? Aside from the technical advantages I feel this camera offers me, and forgetting for a second the resolution and detail that can be achieved when scanning the negatives, it’s just good fun. That, for me, is the most important thing in photography. The fully manual and mechanical nature of these cameras also forces you to slow down and really consider every tiny detail.

In the case of Black Dots, the 5×4 camera encouraged me to give the landscapes and the people I met the time they truly deserved.

About the author: Nicholas White is a photographer based on the edge of Dartmoor National Park in the South West of England. You can find the rest of the Black Dots series and more by visiting his website or following him on Facebook and Instagram.