The Leica Photographic Retreat offers an exclusive opportunity to perfect your photographic skills with one of the world’s foremost fine art photographers, Max Milligan. As we discover with Max, the retreat offers more than that. It is a chance to sharpen your eye, to connect with nature, and to rewild your soul in one of the UK’s most remote and panoramic landscapes.
Here, we catch up with Max on his journey as a photographer; explore what excites him most about the world of photography; and why Alladale’s ancient forests, snaking rivers and recovering natural landscapes are the perfect place to develop your skills.
Max Milligan is an author and fine art photographer renowned for his painterly eye and the fact that he uses no filters, flash and only minimal digital correction in his work, preferring natural and available light. With eight books published and two in production, his titles have appeared in The Times Top Ten Travel Books of the Year and Condé Nast Traveller Book of the Month. He began his career working as a wildlife cameraman for the BBC and National Geographic Video in the Amazon jungle before becoming a documentary editor at the BBC and Channel 4 in London. Since 1993 he has solely focussed on writing and photographing for book and exhibition projects.
A Q&A with photographer Max Milligan – your guide on the exclusive Leica Photographic Retreat at Alladale
Q: Max, looking back on your career, what first inspired you to pick up a camera and start documenting the world?
Max: I became interested in photography through paintings, at first. I was very inspired by the early paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was like being banged on the head with a mallet – I saw the bold colours, the tight compositions and I was suddenly aware of what can be done with two dimensions. I’m still described by some as a painterly photographer, and that’s probably because I started as a frustrated painter. Now, I’ve got to a stage where the camera is just an extension of me.
Q: You’ve made an extensive and successful career through photography, but what do you think the art has given your life?
Photography hones your eye. It allows you to see the world differently. I’m always investigating, curious to spot shapes and moments of wonder and beauty. It might be the tiniest thing: a wren, a shimmer of light hitting water. The beauty of photography is that you are documenting real world things that are already there, and so each person will have a unique perspective. Whether that’s the Inca Trail in Peru, or the Namib Desert, or the Caledonian forests of the Scottish Highlands up at Alladale, everyone sees things differently.
The truth is, if you can see it, you can photograph it. That’s what’s so inspiring – all the time your eyes are open, everything could be a stunning photograph. Photography has given me a connection with other people as well. Often, I’m working in remote countries with local communities, and photography is my bridge to engage with people and culture. The camera also opens doors. It’s allowed me to explore and experience the world. I’ve been lucky enough to photograph Jose Carreras singing at Angkor Wat, the only photographer given carte blanche at Princess DIana’s funeral, the only photographer to get a shot of a wild wolf in Lebanon and to photograph the northern lights emerging from the caldera of a volcano.
Q: What is it specifically about Alladale that fascinates you as a photographer?
It’s one of the most remote, wildest and unique places in the United Kingdom. It has such a variety of landscapes. There are two beautiful rivers that run through the reserve, and up at the highest point, it’s the only place in Scotland where you can see both the west and east coasts. It has remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest – some of the oldest trees in Scotland – where you can see what Scotland would have looked like before much of the deforestation that’s happened over the centuries. Then you have the regeneration; there’s all these new trees, which are so inspiring. Now 20 years on you can really feel the change in the environment.
You’ve got Glencalvie falls which are some of the most dramatic waterfalls in Scotland. During the retreat, we’ll have the opportunity to capture images of leaping salmon, which is a real test of a photographers’ ability. There’s also the red deer – they are a bit of a menace with eating young tree saplings, but they’re such a majestic, iconic creature.
It’s a place that offers panoramic landscapes, but also the smaller details; mosses, lichens, wildflowers. I think what’s so special about the place is that it naturally inspires creativity and curiosity. By the end of the trip, guests will have such enthusiasm to get out into the wild nature that Alladale offers, while having a luxury experience at the beautiful lodge.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the retreat?
I’m most looking forward to the learning experience: we’ll have a mixture of experience levels there, and that is a beneficial thing for all photographers. I’ve learned so much from beginners, who ask simple questions that an experienced photographer may not have considered. I’m looking forward to seeing how different photographers interpret and capture a scene, and seeing what their eyes gravitate to. That can introduce you to totally new ways of seeing a place.
I’m also looking forward to helping people to capture images of wildlife and seeing them connect with that nature while growing as a photographer. We’ll also be capturing images under the full moonlight – Alladale is the perfect place for that, remote and cut-off from the outside world, so that will be a special experience.
Q: Do you think there’s a connection between photography and nature?
The blending of nature and photography is incredible. It’s been scientifically proven for years that being connected with nature enriches your life and mental health. Recently, with Covid, we saw the value of engaging with nature when so many were facing intense emotional stress and anxiety. It’s nature that heals us, and what I learned through photography is really how to see and pay attention to it. Sometimes we look past these things, but it might be a particular avenue of trees and the shadows they cast; or a butterfly landing on a wildflower. You wait, it flies around the flower, and then you have your moment. Photography connects you to the environment.
Q: You’ll have lots of opportunities to share your experience and advice with the guests at the retreat. But as a preview, what would be the first piece of advice you’d give to an inspiring photographer?
Shoot what you love. If you’re into football, shoot football. If you’re into architecture, shoot that. Nature, shoot nature. You have to listen to instinct and play to your strengths – that’s what comes alive through your photos.