Edinburgh Castle

Historic Scotland give away free entry tickets to many Scottish attractions to celebrate St. Andrews Day. This year we took advantage of this to get a trip inside the prohibitively expensive Edinburgh Castle.

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Christmas Market

Walking up to the castle from the city centre gives you a good view of the Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens at this time of year. Breakfast hotdogs anyone?

It was wet, pretty cold, and up there on top of the (we hope) extinct volcano it was fairly blustery too. Time to get inside, and weave our way around for over 40 minutes for a few seconds glimpse of the Scottish Crown Jewels – that’s if you haven’t succumbed to claustrophobia in the wait and just leg it out the door the moment you get a whiff of fresh air…maybe that was just me…

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Sunshine on Leith

The best feature of the castle, in my opinion, isn’t castle. It’s the views of Edinburgh and over to the Fife coast.

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The One O’Clock gun, which faces into the city…

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The Black Watch War Memorial

Within the castle is a separate building hosting memorials to the armed forces. Each has in front of it a book of names for WWI and WWII. This one is open to a very special page…

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At the top of the second column of the left page is Pte George Thomas who died in Italy in  November 1944. He was my Grandfather.

 

This post in is tribute to the men, women, and animals who lost their lives in
WWI and WII, and all conflicts before and after. #wewillrememberthem

Thank You.

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August is Festival Month

August is the main month of festivals in Scotland, although they take place in various places all year round. In Edinburgh you have the entire month of August as one big long, often over crowded, festival which includes the legendary ‘Fringe’.

It was nice to see that ‘Donald’ payed us a visit…

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There was plenty of music on the streets as well as in the hundreds of official venues…

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As well as some more unusual street performers…

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As the residents recover and traffic, parking, transport, and the pavements get back to some sort of normality, we know Edinburgh will gear itself up now for Hogmanay and do it all again next August.

 

Meanwhile, up north in the Highlands, although not overly far from Inverness we had the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival.

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More in line with traditional ‘festivals’ this three day very family friendly event also boasts the joys of the blue portaloo, the inevitable wait for one, and the pervading smell that goes with it. But enough of my bugbear of the festival scene…it was also a magical experience of music, magic, songs, dance, and performances ranging from big names such as Paloma Faith to small local bands having their very first big stage outings.

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The loos weren’t the only thing that was blue…
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Love the tartan heart

 

 

Edinburgh : Royal Botanic Gardens

Well, it’s been a while since I posted. Lots of things have happened and there have been many ups and downs in life. Work has taken me to new places, and life changes, choices, and chance meetings have lead to my moving to Edinburgh just over a week ago.

After five months, I now have a home office space again, broadband that actually means I can upload photos and keep in touch with you all, and access to my iMac for processing images.

Over the next few months I shall be exploring my new home, and bringing you some of the images that I am shooting.

So, without further ado, may I present you with the first blog entry in this series:

Edinburgh : Royal Botanic Gardens

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The gardens were founded in the 17th Century as a centre for science, both research and education, and this continues today. Technically, the gardens are actually in four sites and hold the second richest collection of plant species in the world. At the Edinburgh location they hold the rock garden, peat and woodland gardens, ten greenhouses, and the specialists collections which include the Chinese Hillside.

The gardens are open to public year round with free entry, but you do have to pay to get into the greenhouses. To fully explore all the gardens would take several days so on this trip we concentrated on the greenhouses and the more exotic plants contained therein.

Current admission, at the time of writing, is £6.50 for adults including an optional donation (£5.85 standard admission) with reductions for concessions, groups, and free admission for those under 15 or essential carers.

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As well as having lots of plants and trees to look at, there are installations of art around the gardens at various points as well as many architectural features which are, in themselves, interesting.

The gardens also boast the ‘best view of Edinburgh without climbing Arthur’s Seat’ evidently…

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There are also several well located toilets plus three places to grab a coffee or a meal and these serve everything from tea and cakes to a proper Sunday roast.

Whilst you are allowed to take photographs, you need a permit for a tripod, and images cannot be sold or used for commercial purposes without the proper licence. As this blog is editorial by nature, unsponsored, and the images are not being made available for sale I am quite happy to show you my best shots of the day in the hope of encouraging you to also visit one of Edinburgh’s prime attractions.

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For more information about the gardens please visit their website www.rbge.org.uk

Please note I have watermarked the images to prevent them for being used without permission elsewhere. Please respect this as I don’t want to get into trouble with the RBGE either. Thank you. 

 

Why I abandoned mirrorless cameras and returned to a Nikon DSLR

I really wanted to move to mirrorless cameras. I was keen to explore a lighter, smaller, more compact and cartable photographic experience. But, I needed to retain the same quality, or improve on what I had. It didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped and so I’m now back with Nikon, well over a grand down in the pocket for the experience, and a whole lot wiser.

What I am going to say will be controversial to some readers, and that’s ok. Please remember that it is my very personal experience that I am relating, and not a statement of fact condemning any manufacture, cameras, or whatever. Please don’t see it as an invite to send me nasty messages or comments. They might even get published so you will only embarrass yourself. Oh, and all the images are Copyright of me so keep your mitts off.

For me, it started with Fujifilm – the X-Pro 1 came out with two free lenses, the 18mm (not really wide enough), and the 27mm (hmmm, ok as a standard). I loved it, and I took some great photos. But I wanted convenience of a zoom, because I spend a lot of time in wet conditions and I have a tendency to drop things…

I also wanted consistent f2.8.

I had a little trouble holding the very flat body when I was used to a more hand friendly shaped grip. My back and shoulders loved the experience and the photos were top quality, but I would have liked a wider wide angle and I would have liked better focussing, oh and longer battery life. And a zoom with f2.8…

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A zoom, any zoom, didn’t feel good on the rangefinder body, at least to me. It made the whole camera holding experience even worse. The X-Pro series is designed for fast primes, it is what they really excel at. But, I am not a street photographer, I’m usually found in fields, up to my arse in mud, frequently in the rain; I live in Scotland. The X-Pro 1, I don’t think, is weather sealed. I didn’t tempt it.

The lens range simply wasn’t there for me, not at that time. I do object to being forced to buy lenses just from Fujifilm. Ok, I have had Nikon bodies with Nikon lenses, but I have also really enjoyed some Tokina lenses and one (and only one) Sigma lens before.

So, anyway, it went away and was replaced by a Nikon D7100, which was all I could afford at the time. But I hadn’t quite got away from really wanting something smaller and lighter, especially at the end of 15mile hike. So that went away to be replaced by the Fujifilm XT-1, which was so much better suited to the zooms than the rangefinder bodies. I still struggled to find a zoom that met my needs, until in the end I got the 16-55mm/f2.8. It is an amazing lens, except that it is actually about the same weight and size as many DSLR lenses, which makes it very front heavy and somewhat unbalanced on the XT-1. I bought a grip, it was better, but now my camera weighed what a DSLR did and took up more space in my bag than my Nikon D7100 did!

It felt like it always wanted to fall forward, even on a tripod, and I had to really make sure it was secure. The lens weighed more than the body and it was huge by comparison. I wasn’t saving much weight, it was awkward to hold, but the results were great and I persevered. I love Fujifilm’s film simulations, nobody does it better, but…

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Ardvreck Castle. XT-1, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR
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Quirang, Isle of Skye. XT-2, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

Then the Fujifilm XT-2 came out, and it offered (allegedly) a number of improvements over the XT-1. These, to me, included a flip out screen that went in two directions so you can use it in portrait as well as in landscape, and a jog-stick thing for moving the focus point. Believe me, it was a bit of a pain moving it on the XT-1. Unbeknown to me, my (bought used) XT-1 developed a row of dead pixels, and so I was delighted to part with whilst still under its used warranty (by three days, phew) and so I got a decent deal. It wasn’t very old, and it hadn’t take that many shots so this worried me, and it sat like the elephant in the room over my decision to stay with Fujifilm. I have used Nikon camera’s for years and never experience a dead pixel issue. Jammed shutters on Canon cameras have blighted all three I have owned but never had an issue with Nikon…(and hopefully that hasn’t just tempted fate).

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Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye. XT-2, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

I got my XT-2 brand new. It was like “hens teeth” to get one new, and it would be months or even years before any appeared on the used market. I was concerned by the amount of money I had now invested, and that dead pixel issue reared its head again when I found the XT-2 came with an option for pixel re-mapping in the menu. I wonder why they put that in….? Perhaps there had been complaints.

(Incidentally the OM PEN-F has that option too)

Anyway, more great pictures followed. Although to me, they weren’t actually as great as the ones from the XT-1. The new camera gave me 24MP but to me, there was something I can’t define that was missing from these images that is there with the lower 16MP images from the XT-1. Maybe it’s colour, dynamic range, I don’t know. Sometimes you just find something you like in a camera and moan when they change it. I had the same thing with the D200, the last of the CCD sensors. I still to this day like the look of a D200 image over a D700 image, and I shot both at the same time.

But back to my story – I now wanted more lenses, and the ones I wanted were all large, heavy, and to be frank they are darned expensive. You still have to stick with Fujifilm or go fully manual with a very excellent Samyang. The other odd thing that kept striking me when I picked it up and used the dials was that the XT-2 didn’t seem quite as well made as the XT-1 and I had concerns bit were going to drop off it. They didn’t but I was worried…

I know there are reports online of dials breaking so maybe my concern wasn’t totally unfounded. I didn’t see these until after I’d parted company with it, so they didn’t influence my decision.

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XT-2, with XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

If I had the money, and the desire, to go out an buy a mirrorless camera today then I think I would choose the XT-1 over the XT-2. It really does feel better and I actually preferred the results.

I personally think that 16MP is the peak of perfection for a 1.5x crop sensor and that 24MP pushes it too far. But that is me, and every time I post a negative comment or review I get hate mail, but there you go. That’s the internet for you!

To me, with the big lens and with or without a grip, it still felt unbalanced,. You put a heavy, big, lump of fast glass at the front of a body which ways less and has a small hand grip then it is going to.

I really began questioning my missing of the DSLR lens to body balance. I certainly wasn’t saving that much in weight, or size.

To be honest, I have never thought that size is much of an issue. It is more to do with the weight of what you are carrying that determines how pleasant that 10mile hike is going to be. My camera bag remains the same and so I just move padding around to accommodate the size of the items within. I think there is where actually mirrorless manufacturers are going wrong. Having a decent size gives you a secure and comfortable grip in use, and this doesn’t change because hands are, basically, still hands. It isn’t space that’s an issue for me, it is weight.

Also, I am used to carrying my DSLR one handed, it’s just the way that I work. My Fuji’s both really required me to get neck straps because they weren’t comfortable in the hand for very long, and I have real neck issues. My neck issues were one of the reasons I wanted to lighten the load, so I definitely didn’t want my camera back around there again. Without having something to tuck your fingers around it isn’t comfy to single hand hold and wander about with. So it the camera goes around your neck, or in your bag. If it’s in your bag you take less pictures.

I figured that if I was going to go light, then I wanted to be balanced and really light. I wasn’t convinced by the argument that a bigger sensor is better, I think it’s down to the number of pixel balanced with the size of the sensor. A bigger sensor can take more pixels of the same size as a small sensor, if that makes sense. I think, from my personal experience that there is a optimum point. With a compact it’s 10MP, with a 4/3rd it’s probably around 12MP, with 1.5x crops it’s around 16MP, and with full frame 35mm then its around 24MP. That’s my best guess. Yes, if you are printing big enough to notice the difference it will be important, but most of us aren’t.

I also don’t buy the whole thing of needing lots of pixels even when you do print large. I’ve printed to 6ft x 4ft fine art print from a 10MP Nikon D200 native file, converted to jpeg from the raw, and I have printed A3 dps* brochures from a 3MP Nikon/Kodak camera (back in the 1990s) that was a lot worse than 90% of current mobile phones! But, the quality and ability to render colours and tonality is vitally important, more so than how many you have.

I firmly believe that dynamic range is very important, because if you increase that then you already reduce the noise in the shadows and reduce the chance of burned out highlights. You reduce the compromises, and you reduce the need for external filtration. I want cameras to see the range we see, and we are still a long way from that. The human eye is very adaptable, not so much as some birds and animals but way better than a camera.

So, anyway, I thought I’d switch to Olympus (and if you’ve read my other posts then you know how that turned out…)

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Olympus PEN-F, 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 (in camera jpeg)

I guess in the end part of it was that I really missed the familiarity that comes with years of using Nikon. The menus are familiar, the buttons are (largely) in the same place. I favour Nikon over Canon for two reasons (and here I start another fight) – firstly, in over 25 years, I have only ever had three cameras pack up mid-shoot and they were all Canon’s and all with terminally jammed shutters. Secondly, they move the controls and buttons about and I can’t be doing with relearning a new camera as you’ll also know from my things-i-dont-like-about-the-olympus-pen-f post

Ten minutes with any Nikon and I can use it, in the dark, or at least without looking. I take more photos because I’m not messing about in menus, trying to find things. It feels good in my hand. It feels like an extension of me, and that allows me to get on with the creative art of image making.

I keep more images, because I take more images, and because I am not messing about in menus and not getting the results I think I’m going to get. Or missing the shot because I haven’t found the settings I want.

So, I am going back to big and heavy.

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Nikon D600, Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 nano coated bulbous wotsit

Back to a weighty DSLR. Back to big heavy lenses (not that I went very far away with that bit).

I went to my local used dealer and played around with a Nikon D600. Yes, they have a reputation for dust but to be honest if you pick one up now then they’ve either not had an issue, been back to Nikon for free to have it sorted, or the original owner would have got it replaced by a D610 by Nikon F.O.C. So it’s probably now a bit undeserved, unless you get one from a really lazy owner. It does however make them daft cheap, for what you’re getting.

I played with it for ten minutes and it felt like coming home. It sounds silly but I didn’t need to look at the controls more than once or twice, and, within minutes I had the settings the way I wanted them and saved to custom memory. It was just comfortable…

…welcome home.

And, I now I also have full frame! And with my ideal of 24MP.

I also now have balance! I can use the camera with one hand again, even with the bulbous wotsit (Nikon AF-S 14-24/2.8). The lenses, even the big ones, balance on the camera. I’ve gone a generation back to get the body, and spent the real money on the glass (always the best plan because you’ll change your bodies every few years but good glass lasts, well almost, forever).

My osteopath won’t like it….

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But I do.

And hey, my DSLR with a little 50mm/f1.8 prime even weighs less than my XT-2 with the zoom.

*double page spread, ie. an A3 centrefold in an A4 product

Clash in the Braes – Joe Strummers Rebel’s Wood

Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, once said ‘I am a terrible Scotsman’. But the terrible Scotsman created a legacy on a remote corner of the Isle of Skye which continues to this day.

This is Joe Strummer’s wood, or Rebel’s Wood.

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In one of the quieter parts of the Isle of Skye, and there are still a few bits the majority of tourists pass by, there is an area of woodland that is slowly re-generating and becoming a home to otters, White Tailed Sea Eagles, Red Deer, and foxes.

Hidden, away from the shores of Loch Bracadale under the majesty of McLeod’s Tables, near Orbost, lies a slowly developing forest of Birch, Alder, Rowan, Willow, and Oak. Trees that should cover, and once did cover, much of not only Skye or of Scotland, but much of the uplands of the UK.

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Paths, some made by deer, some by people, and all following ancient ways, cross this landscape, passing copses of trees planted in Joe’s memory, and tended by enthusiastic locals and dedicated members of the Joe Strummer Foundation. The crags above are home now to birds ranging from the smallest passerine to the Scotlands largest Eagle.

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To reach this woodland you pass through the sadly much more common commercial woodland landscape of a conifer plantation, but by gaining height you will receive a reward of some of the most stunning views in all of Skye. The whole of the Cuillin spreads across in front of you, across the loch, and clouds thunder endlessly on the western skies.

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Boggy in places, the walk takes you through a man-made landscape which appears timeless but is anything but. People crofted here until the clearances, and somewhat oddly, it is now perhaps one of the best locations on the whole island for a 4G mobile signal! Something quite alien to the inhabitants of this settlement, who would have travelled mainly by foot, for days to get out messages or receive news.

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People still come here, some shelter overnight on longer hikes with the ruins of croft cottages and farmsteads, and you can almost hear the sounds of our ancestors on the wind.

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I rested a while inside the walls of one croft whilst having lunch, and I thanked my hosts for their hospitality as I left. The feeling of people having lived here lingers strongly, be that a collective memory, a cultural knowledge and acceptance, ghosts and souls that linger, or just my vivid imagination, I never imagined not thanking them for visiting on their homes and being given shelter.

It is only a few years since the tree planting began, and it will take time for the effects to reach deep into the landscape, much more time than it takes man to destroy it, but we do know that changes do not have to be forever.

Although Joe is no longer with us, his legacy lives on here and will continue to do so, entwining with the souls of those who came before and touching the souls of those who come after. Perhaps his question of ‘should I stay or should I go’ has finally been answered.

 

All images photographed with the Fujfilm XT-2, Fuji XF16-55/2.8 R LM WR, carried in a Lowepro Whistler BP350AW rucksack and stabilised where required using a Gitzo 3 series Mountaineer tripod with Manfrotto Magnesium head. I stayed on Skye in a camping pod at Whitewave near Uig. 

 

3 Days of Skye – Day 3

The sky on Skye is wonderful this morning, which is typical when it’s time to go home. Of course, there is no need to go straight home, or even via a remotely direct route, as part of the fun of any adventure is the travelling.

So, this morning, after more kippers, I am off to Dunvegan Castle, or I would be, if it wasn’t shut for winter. Scotland, which is very reliant on tourism, is still stuck in the age when winter was winter and nobody came. In the Skye Brewing Company, yesterday, they were commenting they hadn’t ever seen a February so busy, and they are not alone. Closed castles, closed hostels, closed pubs, closed hotels, and lots of tourists. The things that are open are reaping the rewards! Welcome to the 21st Century Scotland!

For me, I have spent two days wishing for a dramatic light, and today I am getting it. Of course, I am heading in the wrong direction and constantly shooting into the sun, but then that is the nature of having to stick to moving in certain ways, on certain days.

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The Cuillin

I love the new ACROS setting that is available with the Fujifilm XT-2, the X-Pro 2, and the soon to be available XT-20. It is a shame it cannot be retrospectively applied to XT-1 shots though.

Moving further down the road, I wanted to get a sort of Canadian feel to a shot and include some trees, something that is actually quite scarce on Skye.

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The Cuillin from Caiplach Forest

The light was coming in shafts that appeared to set the landscape on fire, and the building bulk of the clouds was creating thick shafts of light with definite edges. The effect was stunning and as brutally hard to capture as it was threatening. Clouds building ominously over the top of the mountains were also making me happy not to be up there. People who think we have small mountains in Scotland which are easily tamed should remember this is still the training ground for the Royal Marines, saw the birth of the Commando units of WWII, and still breaks many international mountaineers even to this day.

The Caiplach Forest shot required a lot of in-camera, or on-camera, filtration using ND grads and a polariser. The sun was just to the left of the shot meaning flare was a huge issue, and I must have been quite entertaining to watch as I wafted my map book between camera and sun to prevent lens flare. Without the filters I could have used the lens hood, but then I would have lost the drama of the sky and mountains. The shafts of light were really ‘thick’ and whilst I wanted to loose some of the general haze, I was desperate to keep the shafts visible to add to the drama. The light on the grasses and heather was so stunning that even just stood watching it around my feet made me feel like any moment my boots would catch fire.

It was really difficult to capture what I wanted in the second-by-second changing light, to stand in the wind, keep everything steady, and to time it just so that the big cloud sat in the right place over the Cuillin.

With all this drama surrounding me, I was tempted to stay for another night on Skye, perhaps moving to the Broadford, or Sleat, areas. Sadly, budget constraints, balanced with the forecaster promise of just waking up to wet, dull, and more wet and dull, wasn’t appealing.

As the weather closed in, it was time to go. I was to head not directly for home, or as directly as I can going via Inverness, but to go down and then across via Spean Bridge, then into the Cairngorms, to Aviemore, and then finally to home on the Moray coast.

So, although this blog series is called 3 Days of Skye, there is quite a bit of not Skye today too (but it’s all related).

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Skye Bridge, Kyle of Lochalsh, and the Lochalsh Hotel

Passing by three sets of locked toilets, and wondering if the second dose of kippers wasn’t agreeing with me, I finally found myself at the Kyle of Lochalsh and happy to pay my 20p to pee.

As I sat and drank some water, in the warm sunshine, without need of a jacket, I could watch the weather on Skye take a rapid turn for the worse. I sat at the pier-side and looked back to the changes on Skye then took a brief walk in the warm sun.

I had left the hotel by 9am, but it was still lunchtime before I was off of Skye. I knew I had a good 2/3rd of the journey home still to do, and with stops I anticipated getting home well into the evening. Time to get going.

Of course, if you are heading from the Kyle either to Inverness or to Fort William, you have to pass the monster of Eilean Donan Castle. It is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland, and quite possibly also one of the most photographed castles in the world. It owes it’s modern day fame to the 1986 film Highlander, and possibly a little bit to an earlier James Bond.

Ancestral home of the MacRae’s, not the MacLeods (see yesterdays entry), the Chief of the MacRae’s still resides (at least for some of the time) within its walls. It also provides wonderful tours, and has an excellent gift shop, like most respectable castles in Scotland, well, at least those with intact walls of roofs of course.

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Eilean Donan Castle

Normally, I seem to time this very badly and get to the castle when the tide is almost right out, and the infestation of midges at it’s very worse. The castle stands on Loch Duich, and this is a tidal sea loch. Luckily for me, today at last I had timed it well, and although the reflection could have been better if the wind had dropped, it was nice not to dance about being bitten to death. I swear the highland midge is the originator of the highland fling and it hasn’t anything to do with music…

As I reflected on the number of times I have stood in this, and similar, spots and the events in my life surrounding the times I have passed this castle, and the people I have been there with, the light burst through the clouds to catch the stonework which improved this image and created a warmth to the granite.

Travelling on, initially signed for Inverness and Fort William, I was to take the A87 turn to Invergarry, and then on to Spean Bridge where between there and Fort William, I would then take the turn signed towards the Cairngorms National Park.

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Gairich and Sgurr Moor from above Loch Quoich

The last photo of the day was taken in strange place not far from a lay-by on the A87. The OS map shows the word Cairn, indicating a burial or memorial cairn, but it seems that this little spot, and it’s spectacular view, has become something more significant than that. Whilst carefully picking my way from 10″ cairn to 10″ cairn, edging towards the point I took my shot, I counted over 20 memorials. I stopped to read the plaques where they existed. I am stood carefully by one to a chap called Mike at the time of taking the photo.

There were the little cairns with no markers, some with little slate plaques, two with iron crosses (made of iron, not in the unfortunate Germanic sense), and one clearly Jewish memorial. It was quite moving. Obviously, these people must be either lovers of the mountains and thus their loved ones have held this spot dear, their friends and families have found something here that speaks to them.

I hope it continues, in the same, carefully un-arranged, not becoming a clinical, official, or uniform manner. I hope their souls gather to admire the view and trade tales, and so, at the end of their tales, it is also the end of mine.

I hope you have enjoyed my wee trip through the Highlands to Skye. I have made many trips like this over the years, and it will always remain one of my favourite places, in spite of the tourist take-over, and the weather, and the midges.

If you enjoyed this, please share it, and if you didn’t, then how the hell did you get through three other sections to part four?

Enjoy the mountains, leave nothing by footprint, and take only photos away with you.

  • I stayed at the Uig Hotel, Uig, Isle of Skye 
  • I booked through hotels.com
  • I shot this with a Fujifilm XT-2, Fuji 16-55/2.8 XF lens, using a Gitzo Mountaineer Series 3 tripod with Manfrotto Magnesium head, SRB and Cokin P series filters (which are too small and soon to replaced), and I carried my gear in a Lowepro Whistler BP350AW. 

I was powered by Lucozade and Chocolate Mini-Rolls, mostly plus copious amounts of tea.

All photography and copy is the exclusive right of Blythe Storm, Copyright 2017, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, contact me for details. I AM NOT SPONSORED, although I am open to offers, bought all my own gear, and paid for all my accommodation and refreshments.

Map of Skye reproduced with permission, and much thanks, to isleofskye.com – a great source of information about the island.

If you have joined us at the end of the trip you can find the links to the previous entries below:

Day 1

Day 2 (Part 1)

Day 2 (Part 2)

 

3 Days of Skye – Day 2 (part 1)

Day 2 (Part 1)

Breakfast or Sunrise…Breakfast or Sunrise…Breakfast or Sunrise…?

That was the decision that faced me late on Monday night, as I set my alarm, in the Uig Hotel on the Isle of Skye. The photographer’s app’ on my phone wasn’t helping. It was clearly showing that the Quiraing would be a spectacular place to greet the morning sunrise, at 8am. Breakfast in the hotel was from 7.45-9.15 (I think).

To get into position I would have to get up around 6.00am, grab a quick tea and shower, and leave by 7am. Or that would appear to have to be the plan, but it would mean missing breakfast…and also…I am not a morning person.

After a nice beer battered fish-n-chips (a very good, if rather expensive, beer battered fish and less than 10 chips in a fancy basket thing) and just one pint of Skye Red, I went to bed. It was only 9.30pm, but if I was going to try for the sunrise, then bed it had to be. Since my surgery, I have to get up a least twice during the night, which is why I wasn’t using a hostel with a shared room, or camping. I am not sociable at night.

As it happened, I must have been a bit excited, or anxious, because not only did I get up just after midnight, and my usual 3.30am, but I then woke up (proper wide awake) at 5.15am. I didn’t get up at 5.15am of course, but at least I was awake. Nice bed, warm, cosy, oh look, tea…

Finally, outside, just before 6.45am, it was cold, very cold, and a bit windy, again. I know you’re thinking, it is February, it is Scotland, just get on with it.

The road was ‘interesting’ in that it went up into the ridge near the Quiraing, and then down a series of hairpin bends into Staffin. As I approached the entrance to this road, from the longer round the top to Staffin main road, there was a big warning sign –

‘ROAD MAY BE IMPASSIBLE IN WINTER CONDITIONS – CONSIDER AN ALTERNATIVE ROUTE’.

That did not bode well.

I thought, briefly, of not trying it, then I thought…let’s see what it’s like, I can try and turn around if I don’t like it. The gullies beside the road were frozen, but there wasn’t any snow. The tarmac was missing in places and the pot holes were enough to simultaneously have you wondering about your wheels, your suspension, and your spine. You couldn’t see them in the dark, but you most definitely felt them!

As the sun started to rise and the world started to light up a bit, you’ll realise that you couldn’t avoid them anyway. The road was what one might generously call narrow, with some small passing places, a common theme in Scotland to anywhere remotely interesting. After Arran, nothing seems quite so bad anymore though, and on I went at a relatively sedate 35-40mph, slower in places I admit. I am glad the warning of ‘winter conditions’ did not come to pass and make me have a desire to turn around, I wouldn’t have had a cat in hell’s chance of doing so.

A lunatic in a Subaru came the other way, at rally speeds, and scared the crap out of me. But I made it to the parking bay at the very top, just as the sky went a beautiful purple. I was alone up there, the only car. I hadn’t had to let anyone pass me, and I had only seen the one car coming the other way. Perhaps a bonus of February?

The hotel was busy, and people were commenting on the ‘Outlander’ effect. I suppose it’s like a new ‘Highlander’ effect, which is still effecting some of our castles 30+ years later (my god, I feel old).

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Before sunrise – Totternish ridge near the Quiraing

Was I too late? I checked the OS map. Damn. The sun was rising rapidly now and moment by moment the landscape was revealing itself, and so was the path. OMG the path! It was 12″ wide at best, clinging to the side of the steep slope, many, many metres in the air.

And you have to leap the small gullies and their waterfalls! OMG. I was so NOT ready for this. Courage…

I looked around me. I was not going to get to The Needle in time. This was where I had wanted to be for the sunrise, but I should have got out of bed at 5.15 after all! I would just have had to have used my head-torch. The torch was actually in the car for the very purpose, although I don’t know if the path would be less scary in the dark or more so…

Either way, I decided I wasn’t going to get there in time. Play it safe, get some decent shots, find somewhere, here, the sun is rising, and rapidly. My brain was in overdrive. I was running about the hillside like a goat (an uncoordinated goat admittedly).

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The moment of sunrise

I found my spot. I set myself up, working quickly. Facing the distant mountains of Wester Ross, across the Sound of Raasay and the Inner Sound beyond that. Here she comes…

In seconds I was bathed in warm glowing light. The rocks lit up and the shapes of the ridge revealed themselves all around me.

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Trotternish, moments after the sunrise

The light and the colours changed every few seconds, the details slowly revealed, and the shadows lengthening. It was stunning. I had forgotten how quickly this all happens, like I say, I am not a morning person…I tend to shoot sunsets.

I turned around to face the mighty Quiraing…

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The Quiraing

The scary path, now even more revealed, showed me that there was no way I would have got to The Needle in time. I had made the right decision. I know now why people camp out overnight on the ridge to get those sunrise shots, at the Prison, the Needle, and around the Table.

Although I hadn’t got the shots I had intended, I was happy with the shots that I had. If I had proceeded, aside from probably needing a change of underwear because I am a big scaredy cat, I could well have missed getting anything decent at all! This is where years of experience in photography, and understanding the need to get the best shot in the circumstances, comes into play. Landscape photography is a game of light, of calculated risks, and sometime very quick decisions.

I had made a decision, with only moments in which to do so, and I had made the right one. I should point out that, when it comes to my life in general, this isn’t normally the case. I am generally indecisive, inclined to dither, and very good at cocking it up because I choose badly.

Would I make that decision again? No, actually I would have made a slightly different one. I would have made a decision a good couple of hours earlier, and got out of my cosy bed rather than sitting drinking tea!

The wonderful light didn’t last long. Soon, the great sunny, wall to wall, blue sky that had been forecast had now arrived, and it was time to head down. It was just around 8.20 ‘ish.

I passed another five tripods perched at various points between me and the car park. Obviously five people who were worse at planning, or getting out of bed, than me. Five bodies loitered about fairly near to them, some wandered around looking for different angles. But for me, the light was gone, and I was heading back to the hotel. It was 8.40…and I started to wonder…could I make breakfast?

Now I could see the bends, and was able watch for other cars coming up at me (as I went down back towards Uig). I could go a little bit quicker, in some places. Not much quicker, I was trying to avoid the flipping pot holes, the extent of which I could now also see…

I got to the hotel at 9.00. I stuck my head in the restaurant, and was assured I could make breakfast. I ran up to the room and put the nearly dead camera battery on to charge, for later. Loch Fyne Kippers awaited, and they were fine indeed.

Rejoin me after breakfast by clicking here

Review of the Lowepro Whistler BP350AW

All photos by the author, copyright of the author, all rights reserved.

First Impressions:

It’s bloody expensive. There is no getting around the fact that this is the most expensive camera bag (or any bag) that I have ever bought. So, it had better live up to expectations and they are going to be high. But then, when you think of the value of the equipment you’re placing in it, it does make sense to have something that you actually trust to do the job.

Here is what Lowepro have to say about their creation:

Empty it weighs 3kg. This is important, because most camera rucksacks weigh in around 1.6-2.3kg. So there is something about the extra weight that instills both confidence and fear. It is very, very, well made and this instills confidence, but then you have to actually carry it, with the added weight of your actual equipment. From unpacking it the attention to detail and build quality is obvious, straight away. To be honest, I have not had a lot of faith in Lowepro camera bags, to date, as they always seemed rather soft and well, floppy, for my liking. The Whistler doesn’t. It is in a different league. I think Lowepro starting improving quality with the Protactic range but this is a big step up again.

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The Whistler BP350AW and BP450AW both come with a host of straps, two of them both removable and bright orange. These can be moved to any of the suitable fixing points around the bag. This is very useful. At the moment they are acting as compression straps for the items in the big front section but they could also be used to affix any number of items to the front (or sides) of the bag.

I quite like the fact they are bright orange as it breaks up the grey, but I can understand they may not be everyones cup of tea. The good news there is of course that you can replace them with other suitable attachments or straps if you choose. The other news is that if you are using this bag for its intending backcountry use, they are not likely to be bright orange for very long…

There are Mollie style loops all over the bag to attach things to, including on the brilliant hip belt.

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One side of the hip belt features a pocket (which is actually a useful size) and the other side features some Mollie attachment loops. If you don’t know what Mollie attachments are, ask someone in the Armed Forces or take a look at the Lowepro Protactic range which is covered in the stuff.

The main reason for buying this bag was having a decent all season rucksack with a PROPER HIP-BELT. It’s in capitals because I cannot emphasise this requirement enough. It was a huge deciding factor in my choice of bag, and in this bag in particular. Everyone who goes more than a couple of miles into rough terrain, with any amount of weight, will tell you the value of a decent rucksack and most especially the value a decent hip belt. A hip belt takes the weight OFF your shoulders and puts in through your hips to your legs. Your legs are the powerhouse (try seeing, next time you go to the gym, the difference between what you can push with your legs compared to your arms).

Why therefore is it that probably around 85-90% of camera rucksacks don’t have hip belts? It is beyond me. Lowepro is the sister company of Lowe Alpine – both children of Greg Lowe. Greg Lowe, and his companies, have designed outdoor and backcountry equipment for explorers/climbers/hikers/skiers/etc for decades – almost all of Lowe Alpine’s sacks, even their day sacks from around 30l, have decent hip-belts. So, why on earth do most camera bags (which regularly have a considerably greater weight, for size, in them) come without this most basic and essential feature? Sure, make them removable if you wish to meet the requirements of urban use where a waist belt might be inconvenient, but for the sake of shoulders, backs, and necks, everywhere, give us the flipping option!

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Not only does the Whistler come with a decent hip belt, it also has good straps and a nice back system.

The shoulder straps have some fixed, and some elasticated, web straps for putting accessories onto, behind, through, or whatever. They are not over padded, but they are comfortable. This is something a company like LoweWhatever should get right.

They should also allow for the fact that over 50% of the population has BOOBS. Yes, over because if you think about it, you can include MOOBS in this too. Shoulder straps, and sternum straps especially, have to allow for these and they regularly don’t. This is something this model, at least for my frame (and not hard to miss boobs) have got right.

The back system has firm padding with gaps to allow air circulation, which will be beneficial in warmer climes or on that singular day of Scottish summer we usually have.

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I have an ActivZone back system on my much smaller Protactic BP250AW, also from Lowepro, and which would be my go to bag for urban use. It does not have a hip belt. It has a waist strap which just makes you look fat (as it cuts into the stomach being 1/2″ thin) and take no weight off your shoulders what-so-ever.

It does do a reasonable job of keeping you cool though.

The back of the Whistler also folds in two, so you don’t have to open the whole rucksack up, if you plan the contents so that the most used items go in the top half (like your main camera body and lenses, batteries, etc). This is a matter of logical planning which will probably develop over time, according to use, and also according to the type of shoot and location you are going to.

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The back piece also has three slots for memory cards and a zipped compartment. The zipped compartment doesn’t have a great volume as it would dig into the main compartment, but you could sometime fairly flat in there. I have my Xrite colour chart and grey card in mine. Please can Lowepro look at Tamrac’s memory card slots though. Tamrac put in a red ribbon or tag on theirs, which you then pop out of the pocket to show instantly which cards are used and those without it showing therefore are those which aren’t used. It’s such a simple idea, and makes a whole heap of difference in use. I am actually going to sew ribbon to mine myself, because knowing instantly which ones are empty can make the difference between missing the shot and not.

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The main compartment, which comes out as a single unit by the way, has great dividers including the marvellous pouch ones that Lowepro (fairly) recently introduced. These are brilliant for batteries as they keep them slightly insulated and they also don’t fall out and end up clattering around in the main compartment. They are also great for things like stepping rings, or filter holder adapter rings, which otherwise end up lost in a pocket somewhere.

In the Whistler they are actually big enough to put something like a small Go-Pro in, if you wanted.

blythestormwhistlerreview-18Here is mine loaded up. As you can see I have plenty of space for the system to grow. One thing time, and ill purchases, has taught me is that more room is better, as otherwise you’ll upgrade in a few months time and loose money on your purchase.

This is also one reason I went for the 350 over the 450 size. I don’t have that much kit, and what I have being mirrorless, it doesn’t need the depth of the 450. The other reason is simple – I am 5ft 4″. The 450 would simply be too tall, and have too long a back length. Camera bags are, largely, designed for 6ft blokes. You cannot escape this fact and any woman will tell you. When I put on the Whistler wearing summer clothes (t-shirt, jeans) and tighten the hip belt I have around 18″ of strap on each side. This is a very common problem. Manfrotto sacks are worse, with them I have a whole 2ft of unused strap and it dangles below my knees! Some (Tamrac and Crumpler I am looking at you…) require a 32″ waist minimum otherwise you can’t actually get them tight enough to be useable at all. I have a waist pack from Crumpler which proves this point superbly. I can pull it as tight as it will go, jiggle, and it will go over my hips and hit the deck. Thanks Crumpler, great design…not!

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Hidden at the bottom of the camera block, and rolled up in the photo above, is the thin front cover for the removable camera block.

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Useful for when the block is removed, obviously, it also acts as a second barrier in use if not rolled away and this can be interpreted two ways – it is a barrier and something else to undo, therefore a pain in the arse that slows down your access, or a benefit in bad weather.

Up to you to decide which, but I have rolled mine away, for now. Should I want to remove the camera block and use the rucksack as a straight forward backpack (which it would be very good as, but rather heavy) then I will probably use it.

I do like the orange accents, not just because its compliments whilst contrasting with the grey (being girly) but also because it is useful in bad light. This was always a selling point of Kata bags, which Manfrotto ignored when they took them over.

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So, coming around to the other requirement I have for my backpacks; space to put what they lovingly call ‘personal items’. Now, in most bags this means your wallet and phone, possibly your car keys. Even camera bags designed for the ‘outdoors’ don’t expect you to want to eat or drink during the trip. This is very annoying, very impractical, and a complaint you will hear from photographers everywhere. Usually something along the lines of; “where the f*** do I put my lunch?”

For those if us expecting to be in the hills for 8-12 hours, and sometimes longer, this is actually darned important stuff. We also might want to carry spare clothes, waterproofs, spare socks, and even toilet paper, nappy bags, and a small shovel (and if you have to ask what that is for then remember I just said we were out for more than 12 hours and would be eating during that period…)

The Whistler is brilliant for this. There is a huge space for all kinds of stuff and it even has the option to be two sizes due to the expansion panel – superb idea!

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In summer I actually need more room, as I will carry my jacket and possibly a fleece or thin insulating jacket. In winter I need less room but tend to carry more foodstuffs. The back of this compartment is also waterproof so you can put wet gear in it, and it has a drain hole in the bottom for the really wet stuff (or leaking water bladders). This will keep your camera safe from spills, and any excess water from your coat or waterproof cover when it stops raining and the sun comes out. I live in Scotland, I am ever the optimist.

The material itself is very robust, way more than their usual materials, and seems to be coated with a waterproof and almost rubbery top coat. This would lead me to believe the bag will perform well in wet conditions, although with zips always being the weak point, there is also a waterproof cover supplied to encase the whole bag. Of course, you can’t use that if you have anything strapped to the outside such as your tripod/skies/snowboard/climbing stuff.

This is a problem I have yet to see a way around and I am sure that Lowepro, and others, are still figuring that one out.

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There are two mesh pockets, this one (as shown) in the big personal stuff section, and another in the small personal stuff section (more of that in a minute). The waterproof cover arrived in the small one but I put in it this one as it made more sense to me. Waterproof cover in the section that is drainable and waterproof from the camera section of the bag, not the section that would drip it over the camera section and everything else like my phone/keys/wallet. But that might be me.

The small personal section is actually big enough to get snacks in, as well as your personal items as listed above. It sits on the top of the bag and has two key clips (one inside the mesh pocket and one out). I didn’t photograph it but it is larger than I thought it would be.

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On one side of the bag is an expanding pocket that doesn’t expand that much, and within it are two small envelope pockets. These look quite good until you realise there is no way to do them up. A little bit of velcro, like the pouch dividers have, would be great here. Otherwise, if you leave the zip open and tilt the bag, even slightly, backwards, everything in them falls out. I am using it for a notebook and pen, and the larger expanding pocket for maps. I wouldn’t put anything else in there really. It is the only flaw to the design I can see so far.

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On the other side is one of the best of most stable set of loops, straps, and fastening points I have seen on a camera rucksack ever. Period. I can put two legs of my tripod in the bottom fixed loop and then use the strap at the top to hold it firmly in place. This is by far the very best tripod attachment I have had on ANY camera bag. I have a biggish tripod and this is the only time it hasn’t wobbled about. I actually returned a Manfrotto Bumblebee, which I otherwise thought was quite good, because of this instability. I don’t need help falling over on slippery ground.

I just hope it doesn’t stretch, but if it does then the extra strap at the bottom can be employed to tighten things up, and I have option of adding a third strap to the middle.

Initially, first impression, I am very impressed indeed. My bank manager probably isn’t though. I am still suffering from pangs of guilt for having spent the money.

I took it out for a first trial walk today, to see if it was as comfortable in the field (or in this case on the North East Scotland coastal cliffs), as it was walking around the house fully loaded. So far, and I didn’t go that far, I believe it is.

My trip to photograph Bow Fiddle Rock today was in cloudy, +3°C at best, and blowing a good 35mph+ North Westerly condition. I was 90ft above the sea on the cliffs, frequently on muddy and slippery ground but I felt secure, stable, and comfortable. I felt like the 3kg of bag wasn’t there, and the kit itself was more manageable than usual. Having the weight correctly balanced, and transferred to the hips, was just bliss (compared to having it pulling you backwards and weighted on your collar bones).

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The tripod was essential for the long exposure, and yet it was secure and comfortable when on the pack. When I was carrying it by hand I slipped over on my arse, landed on my side, and sprained my wrist but that is probably just me anyway.

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I got some great shots in spite of the difficult conditions. My kit felt cosseted and looked after, and I have no doubt I could cope with a lot worse weather without issue.

Downsides? Well, there is the price. There also isn’t a way to use the waterproof cover with anything on the attachments points, such as a tripod, but I don’t know how you would possible get around this anyway.

The orange won’t stay orange for long, or at least not as bright or without some stains.

Other than that, we will see. I intend to update this review in due course when it has some miles under its hip belt, so we will see. At the moment, I would argue it was worth the (lots of) money.

Oh, you would look a right plonker using this in town though…but then that isn’t what it is for.

#lowepro #whistler #WhistlerBP350AW #review