Things I don’t like about the Olympus Pen-F

If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll see that I reviewed the Olympus Pen-F a little while ago. Since then I have used this camera on a trip to the Isle of Skye, which I have also documented, and which sadly resulted in my having some serious second thoughts about my relationship with this beautiful little camera.

I love it’s size, I love it’s weight. It makes really excellent 8×10 prints (I haven’t printed bigger yet). But, for me, personally, as a landscape photographer, there are some real issues that have come to light.

Firstly, the Olympus menu system; I shoot raw and jpeg because I like to have the option of reverting to the raw file later if needed, but I also like the convenience of having a jpeg which meets my requirements as a finished image. My problem with this on the Olympus is controlling the jpeg in camera. I got spoiled with the Fujifilm system where you selected a film replication and knew exactly what you were getting. You didn’t need to tweak the colours, it was simple and effective. Now, I know this is down to me not having got the settings right as yet, but trying to delve into menus and options in the middle of a field in gale force winds is just not happening. Trying to see a tiny little adjustment colour wheel on a highly reflective screen, with even smaller nodes and really sensitive operation of the knobs and dials, whilst standing on top of cliff, in sunlight, is nigh on impossible. Trying to make valid adjustments with gloves on, totally impossible.

I know this is me, and that there is nothing wrong with the camera. But, I don’t want to take a degree in computer nerd to operate my camera.

In the end I decided I had had enough of messing about with the jpegs and set the whole camera to shoot raw only and fully manual. I’d deal with the processing after. The trouble is, that isn’t what I bought the PEN-F for, and it’s a waste of its extensive talents.

They say familiarity breeds contempt but with equipment that isn’t true. I have used Nikon cameras for over 30 years, right from film and through the first digital cameras which were Kodak/Nikon hybrids. Nikon, unlike a lot of manufacturers, keep pretty much everything in the same places from one body to the next. The menus have the same titles, and the same order. Sure they add new things but it’s logical. Sure, sometimes buttons moved or can be programmed, but its logical and it takes only a few minutes to find where the stuff has gone to or what’s new. I can operate a Nikon in the dark, like an extension of my own being. It is familiar to the point that I can pick up any body and lens combination and make it work without thinking about it.

This means that I am concentrating on my composition, on actually taking the photo, and not operating the camera.

Anyway, as I said, I switched the camera to raw and manual which kind of turned it into a Fuji…which leads me to the second thing:

I like to use filters to get shots right in-camera, first time. This includes graduated neutral density filters. Now, I’m not a complete numpty and I did leave the 100mm filter system at home (and there is no way to get rings to attach it to the tiny filter sizes of the Olympus lenses anyway). I took a Cokin P sized system with me, with three hard grads, two soft grads, a polariser that didn’t fit the holder (which is another story…), and stepping rings to take the 52mm filter size from the 9-18mm lens down to the 3something-mm of the standard lens. The soft grads were unusable as the graduation change covered more than the actual diameter of the biggest lens, so you couldn’t get the effect at all, just a graduation across the whole scene or a very weak transition of grad over around half of it. This was pretty useless, really. It was also a right bastard to line anything up because the viewfinder is small and the screen is hard to see in bright light. Why can’t they make screen matt?

So, I, and I do mean me, can’t get to grips very quickly with the jpeg options in the field, because I find that they’re too fiddly and too annoying. And, I can’t use filters. And, I’m shooting mainly landscapes.

When I get home, in spite of the issues and how much the Olympus annoyed me in use, I did enjoy the result and was impressed, to a point.

Point three – 4:3 ratio images are odd, to me. They are not quite square and not quite rectangular enough. I ended up turning most of my images into squares. I found that cropping the image to create a more landscape shaped landscape meant a very small file size ensued or, because I had composed the shot with the full size of the sensor in view, I was cropping out bits I actually wanted. Printing onto normal paper sizes also meant cropping off part of the images, which changed the image composition in ways I didn’t appreciate. It was sort of like shooting 6×6 film knowing you’re going to crop to a rectangle so you leave a portion of the frame as unimportant to the composition as you know you’ll loose it. The thing is, with a small sensor like the micro 4/3rds, you don’t have a lot of room for aggressive cropping.

Fourth and final point – the lenses are have are impressively sharp, and they are tiny, which has advantages when hiking, no denying that. Chromatic aberration is well controlled although distortion with the 9-18mm isn’t in raw and there is now automatic adjustments available with a Lightroom profile. This means manually fixing each image, which is fine. It’s not a big job and you do expect that with any ultra wide, especially if its a zoom.

I know the Pro lenses are better, but they don’t suit the PEN-F build. Putting a standard zoom on the front of it makes it front heavy. This doesn’t bother some people, but it does bother me. I had the same issue with the Fujifilm system; the pro fast lenses are the same size pretty much as DSLR lenses but the body is half the size. I found the XT2 with the 16-55/2.8 uncomfortable in use, and weirdly balanced on a tripod, requiring a heftier tripod that I would have liked. This was why I moved to Olympus. To get a balance between the lenses and the body. Perhaps I should have gone for a more traditional SLR shaped body rather than the PEN-F? Who knows.

So, what is the conclusion, my conclusion to this exercise?

Well, I still have the PEN-F kit at the moment because I do appreciate the light weight flexibility. I also think that for travel, where weight or bulk is an issue they can’t be beaten. I also think that for street photography or walking around in areas where you might need to move quickly or surreptitiously they’re wonderful. I never shot street photography until I got the PEN-F because I felt too self conscious. I have depression, and anxiety issues around groups of people, as readers will know.

But….I did just go and buy a used Nikon full frame (FX) D600 body, and two used lenses. It took me around five minutes to set up the whole camera from a factory reset to the way I like my camera setup. I did it whilst having my sandwich, one handed. I then went out and shot roughly 30 images on the way home, in bad light. I loved the reassuring noises it made, even if they were damned loud to start with compared to the Mirrorless cameras I am used to now.

I was reticent about the weight although, the XT2 with its 16-55/2.8 only weighed around a mars bar less, ok two mars bars. I would carry that weight back in extra batteries because the Mirrorless XT2 would get 350shots a charge compared to 900+ with the Nikon DSLR.

I shot in low light, bright light, with and without a tripod, with and without filters, and I rarely looked at the controls. I shot everything in raw, in 14-bit, and then I sat at my computer and admired the detail in the trees and leaves that I simply don’t see in the Olympus images. Yes, I was pixel peeping, because I wanted to do a detailed examination of the files. Then I printed one image out and it fitted to the paper without loosing more than a few millimetres. The whole image, 3:2 ratio.

It has more tonality, it has more detail. Even just printing on an A4 sheet.

Where does this leave the PEN-F? To be honest the jury is out. If someone makes me a good offer then it will go because I need the money back. I will take the Nikon out for a few days and see how I feel about carrying the weight and bulk again. If I decide that actually, with a few manual primes the set up will be just as light and efficient, or near enough, then there is a very good chance I will switch back to a DSLR system completely. I don’t know yet. I’d like to keep both, but that’s not really an option.

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Photographing a quarry rehabilitation in Suffolk

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View from the Double Decker hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@35mm, 1/220sec@f11, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

Between 1968 and 2000, over 3.5million tonnes of sand and gravel were extracted from a site just 5 miles from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, an act which could have been devastating to the landscape and wildlife. But, since the mid-1980s the commercial site management worked with the local Wildlife Trust in a unique partnership which was ahead of its time, not to restore the habitat, but to actually rehabilitate and enhance it.

When the last pit closed in 2000, part of the rehabilitated site was already so significant that it had already become a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The whole site was donated to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust by CEMEX in the same year, and they have continued to expand and develop the site, with the aid of a grant from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund and legacy gifts, creating a marvellous network of hides and paths within what is now the 128-hectare Lackford Lakes reserve.

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Male Banded Demoiselle; one of only two species of colourful damselfly species in the UK they are seen from May-Aug  (Calopteryx splendens) – Canon SX700HS, 135mm, 1/250sec@f6.9, ISO250 (auto ISO, Tv priority)

As part of the SSSI designation, 105.85ha were seen as ‘favourable’ with eight individual units, including the sailing lake. The notable features being the aggregations of non-breeding birds, assemblages of breeding birds, the outstanding dragonfly assemblage for which it is rightly famous, and for the supported variety of birds, which encourage the photographers and birders from far and wide. In fact, there are now many more photographers than birders at Lackford, as evidenced in the hides to the sounds of machine-gunning shutter fire (a small distraction).

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View from Bernard’s Hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF16-55mmF2.8R LM WR@55mm, 1/160sec@f11, ISO200 (AP)

Whilst specialist telephoto lenses are de rigour in the hides, it is actually possible to get some great shots with the minimum of equipment, so the keen amateur naturalists should not be discouraged. All the shots in this blog entry were taken either with the Fujifilm XT-2 and 16-55/2.8 lens, the Canon PowerShot SX700HS compact, or even my iPhone! I have included the settings in the captions for your reference.

Obviously, as you can see from the photos, I was blessed with extraordinary bright light which added use of fast shutter speeds to capture insets and birds whilst maintaining a lower ISO and without compromising on the depth of field. The downside of this was the high levels of contrast and the danger of bleaching out the lightest areas on occasion, and even shooting with the compact set to -1/2 stop wasn’t enough to save some of the images, sadly.

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Another view from the Double Decker hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@35mm, 1/240sec@f11, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

Although I had gone with the view to a relaxing birding morning out, I was able to get some good scene setting shots with the Fujifilm combination, but also, due to the excellent placing of the hides close to the wildlife, some good close-up shots of the birds behaviour also. Being able to extend my birding visit to include some photography also meant I ended up being one of the first cars on-site and one of the few still remaining when the visitor centre closed at the end of the day.

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Geese feeding by Steggall’s hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@55mm, 1/550sec@f5.6, ISO200 (Aperture Priority) – image cropped from 6000×4000 to 5281×2721

Even with the short lens on the Fuji, I was even able to get some decent close shots of the geese which were feeding just outside of Steggall’s Hide, which also provides a shelter for the sheep which graze this area.

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Steggall’s hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@30mm, 1/320sec@f5.6, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

I was also able to get some close-ups of plants and general location shots:

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Fuji @ 34mm – 1/200sec@f5.6/ISO200
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Ash Carr (Fuji @ 16mm – 1/80@f11/ISO200)

 

The reserve is certainly one of the best ones I have experienced for close-up views, and has reasonable visitor facilities which would only be improved by adding some lunch options to the small cafe menu (cake and drinks is nice but not enough for the all-day birder).

I did try some photography of birds and insects with the Canon, and whilst the results were very good when the images were in focus, it was very difficult to get reliable shots of anything that didn’t remain quite stationery. This was mainly due to the appalling slow focusing abilities, and the macro setting was completely ineffective.

I would certainly recommend using an DSLR over a compact, but I would not be discouraged from attempting photography with a good compact or bridge camera, just be prepared for a good few out of focus shots or shots focussed on the background rather than the subject. With digital this isn’t a problem as you can fill a memory card at no cost other than your editing time, but with film this could be a more costly issue.

My longest lens with the Fuji for this trip was just 55mm (82mm in 35mm equivalent), which was certainly long enough to get some good shots, but they would include a reasonable about of background. Of course, contextual shots are actually very interesting, often more so than just frame filling portraits. I think you’d easily get away with a medium telephoto from many of the hides, unlike many RSPB reserves which demand 400-600mm+ for anything decent.

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The layout of the reserve is also fairly accessible, with ramped access wherever possible, and fairly even surfaced paths, although some could be heavy going for those pushing wheelchairs and I could easily see this becoming even more difficult in wetter conditions. Suffolk of course is a very dry county with a chalk based soil so it maintains good stability longer than most.

The sailing lake shares the access road, which is bumpy and potholed, but the sailing does not seem to disturb the birds half as much as the driving of the sailing lakes users might scare visitors. The Slough is generally very quiet with most photographers in the Double Decker trying to get shots of the elusive Kingfishers for which Lackford has become, rightly, famous. Personally, on my previous annual visits, I have only ever seen a Kingfisher from the remoter Steggall’s hide (twice) but I was informed a pair were nesting right outside the visitor centre. This had evidently afforded some reliable views with the benefit of a cup of tea!

You’ll struggle to get a mobile signal throughout, although it is intermittently available as attested by the sudden maddening beeping as it catches up with your emails and messages at various spots. If required, if you really can’t leave it alone, Bess’s Hide is the best place to be (or it is if you’re on EE anyway).

No dogs are allowed on-site.

The terrain is a mixture of wooded areas, reed beds, lakes, and meadows, bordered by a neatly scalped golf course, a road, and the river Lark. In late summer it is still possible to get good numbers of birds, so it is a good place for the birder as well as the photographer, however it is the damselflies and dragonflies which astound in summer. There are also some larger mammals, aside from the semi-resident sheep, in the form of grey squirrels and, spotted from Steggall’s, even a fox.

If you are sitting in Steggall’s minding your own business before being interrupted by monstrous knocking noises do not be alarmed. The semi-resident sheep use it as a shelter and are under the floor! They are a horned variety, with a bit of an attitude, and they like to let you know it.

My list for the first hour was impressive, and over the course of the day ended with 32 species seen with good views. Many more were heard or glimpsed.

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Snap of my list after one-hour (iPhone 6s)

Canada Geese
Egyptian Geese
Mute Swan (with four signets)
Mallard (male in eclipse)
Grey Heron
Coot
Lapwing
Greylag Geese
Tufted Duck
Cormorants
Black Headed Gull
Collared Dove
Common Gull
Moorhen
Pochard
Crow
Buzzard
Common Tern
Gadwall (also in eclipse)
Blackbird
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Coal Tit
Marsh Tit
Green woodpecker
Great Crested Grebe (with chicks)
Blackcaps (breeding pair, with food)
Little Grebe
Magpie (in the car park)
Goldfinch
Tree Sparrow
Common Whitethroat (female)

I would imagine a more experienced birder would come away with far more, as would locals who could learn the likely locations and calls of their own patch more than the visitor would.

I was delighted to see that there was less ‘cock-waggling’ (one-up-man-ship over photographic/birding kit) as we say in my home parts, especially than at many reserves (Aberdeenshire I am looking at you…), and also that birders and photographers were happy to talk and aid species identification with each other. It was also very good to see that you could hire binoculars and this, coupled with the friendliness of natives, meant that new visitors could share the experience without the usual feelings of being intimated by all the ‘gear’.

Lackford Lakes is a reserve close to my heart, because I grew up just a few miles up the road, and when it was an active quarry. It was on my cycle route on a Sunday with my Dad quite frequently, and I wonder what he would make of it now (sadly, he had several years of ill health before he passed away in 2006, which meant he missed a lot of the really impressive redevelopment and expansion that has occurred).

As a year round reserve it is bringing people from the neighbouring conurbation’s back in touch with nature and providing a sanctuary that is visited by people on their way home from work, as well as providing a home for nature of course just outside of a very large market town. Power to thy elbow Suffolk Wildlife Trust, power indeed.

 

A Trip to Sutherland

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There was a heavy frost on the car and it took several minutes to clear the windows and get going. The forecast was for sunshine, with a 20% possibility of showers, but venturing into the Scottish Highlands that 20% could easily grow and the showers could be rain, sleet, hail or even snow. It is winter, after all.

Heading towards Inverness, the view across the Moray Firth was enough to get the heart racing. The northern hills were covered in a fresh blanket of snow and the sky was crystal clear with the odd wee cloud for interest. The low sun, still not fully risen, was bathing the trees in a weak but warm light. It would be a good trip. There was hardly a breath of wind, and no sign of rain at all.

Passing through Ullapool however, the first spots of rain hit the windows. It was snowing on the tops, that was easy to see, but would it hold off?

The first stop was Stac Pollaidh, which I first photographed in 2015. The light was getting worse, although the wind wasn’t too bad, but the spits and spots of rain were still present and the threat was still menacing. The light wasn’t great but the wonderful shape of our Polly and the dead tree and foreground rocks still made for a nice image. Balancing the exposure of the sky and the landscape was increasingly difficult as the contrast became exceptionally high and without a mix of graduated ND filters it would have been impossible.

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The second destination was Ardvreck Castle, which I had also first photographed back in the Autumn of 2015. The spots of rain had now became much more frequent as we travelled towards it. Spots became light rain, then light rain became much heavier rain, as we headed northwards. Then heavy rain got a bit lumpy whilst approaching Inchnadamph, as the rain turned to sleet.

Arriving at the castle’s car park the rain/sleet intensified yet further, and it became impossible to even contemplate getting out the car, let alone taking any photos. The loch disappeared, then the car park disappeared, as the rain/sleet and now hail, hit the screen. It was so cold the screen had misted up in seconds after stopping the engine. The rain continued to pound the roof for a good half hour, my stomach rumbled, and heading off for lunch became a lot more likely than the prospect of photos.

Abandon the trip and return to find a nice cosy pub in Ullapool? It was tempting, but this is when the photographers dog’s inability to sit still (especially in exciting people places) saved the day. There would be no warm pub, but finding a shop and having a snack in the car. I could have murdered a cup of tea though.

Down hearted? Yes. But a thought occurred  – let’s continue on to Lochinver, source lunch and a tea, ideally from the Spar (which actually wasn’t open), and perhaps wait it out? It might improve…

Lochinver: Where the motto is ‘Welcome to a small drinking town with a big fishing problem’ or at least that is what the t-shirts said, in the only shop that was open. The Spar, was closed, the hotel was serving food and the Caber’ was open but I wasn’t leaving the photographer’s dog in the car alone in the cold. So, crisps, Twix, and a couple of cold drinks later acquired from the odd newsagents, and we were sitting in the half empty car park, looking out on the hills surrounding the fishing port…

It might improve…

But, to be honest, it wasn’t looking good. The weather, back in Moray, was glorious of course. Twitter, Facebook, and their like can be terrible for informing you of exactly what you are missing. Over here, on the West Coast, in the highlands, that slim 20% chance of rain, was now a 100% reality.

Still, it might improve…

Lunch was boring, and there was a lack of tea. Bring flask? No, buy a camper van! Make hot drinks and hot lunches, and not have to pee behind bushes! Ok, I will give Lochinver another credit; having a nice, dry, and clean public convenience in a time when they are becoming rarer by the day.

 

In fact, the front that brought the rain also gave new fresh snow to the mountains, and a freshness to the semi-frozen lochs. The water enlivened the landscape, bringing a reflective quality that made the trees and heather almost shimmer. The sky cleared slowly, but the clouds it left gave it an interest that a sunny day would not have had. They clung to the tops of the mountains and competed with the sun.

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A walk in the shadow of the Quinag, mainly to stretch the legs of the photographer and the photographer’s dog finished with the shot above. Majestic, the Quinag is often only seen ‘end-on’ from the shore of Loch Assynt….

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…which was also producing the wonderful, but highly contrasted, view as shown above. I am a bit of a sucker for loch reflections, for breaking the rule of thirds to put the subject in the centre, and for trees on wee islands. This shot has it all. The contrast was the difficult bit, and meter readings varied wildly. In the end I shot one using the Centre Weighted, one using Spot, and one using Average. The histogram showed I needed still to tweak with the settings to keep the sky from going, whilst the shadows were off the other end. Sacrifice one or the other. Try both in camera, and choose on the big screen later.

Using the exposure compensation dial to move 1/3rd of a stop at a time, I dialled in the histogram at one end, shot the shot, then dialed in the other. Using a 0.6 soft grad brought in the sky a little bit I still worried about the highlights on the water almost as much.

This is why I love my Fuji XT-1, there is the latitude, if you use the histogram properly, to get back something from either end (or in this case, both ends!). The JPEG preview didn’t look anything like as good as the RAW file, which is why the histogram is so important.

Now, with two potentially great shots in the bag, the trip was already a success. This was in spite of having a fairly late start to the photography due to the weather. Now to return to Ardvreck Castle. Would we keep the light long enough?

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Arriving at the western side of the loch it is possible to see the castle with a loch-side perspective. There is parking, and it’s important to ensure you are off the road, but don’t take spaces for granted. In winter it isn’t so much of a problem, but this is now part of the 500 route and so that situation isn’t going to get any better.

Due to the location it is possible, although not that easy, to get the castle, the house that replaced it (now also a ruin) and the wonderful snow capped mountains behind and in the same shot. It does make the castle rather small, but the wonderful light on the snow of the mountains of Glas Bheinn and Beinn Uidhe were worth the effort.

Driving along closer to the castle, and then parking in the same car park we had sat in a few hours earlier, I wasn’t convinced the light would do anything. It was heading towards dusk and the light goes very quickly in winter, especially as a mountain just to the south west of the castle really gets in the way of it. I thought, well you are here now and it’s a long drive, make the most of it. Get out the car, and go see, I thought.

This is what I rewarded with this:

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I concentrated on the foreground interest initially incorporating the rocks of the indented shoreline. I watched the increasing cloud, and was still convinced I would loose the best light. Had I missed it? Did I spend to long on wandering about the other side of the Quinag?

Bursts of sunlight teased the far mountains behind me, but would they tease the castle or the slopes of the end of the Quinag?

I slowly wandered toward the castle, tentative as if approaching a wild beast, waiting, waiting on a moment of light. Just as I was marvelling at the reflections and getting the legs of the tripod adjusted to suit the change in terrain, the sun burst onto the slop of Quinag. Thankful for my Gitzo’s quick grasp leg locks, I was ready.

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In fact I was spoiled as the light danced across the end face of Quinag, and the clouds frolicked creating reflections beautifully in the mirror-like stillness of the loch itself. What a reward for not abandoning the trip earlier. It lasted no more than five minutes but it was enough. Enough that using the 16-55/2.8 Fujifilm zoom that I could get the range of shots I needed with very little shifts of my own position.

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What a reward for not judging possibilities solely by the light during the drive, and the poor light in the car park. I could have stayed in the car, shrugged, and given up. But I thought I would take a quick look, a look that turned into an hour, and made the final descent back into Ullapool one taken almost in full darkness.

A quick stop for a warm pee (thank you Tesco) and another snack, and it was time for the long drive home. It was now fully dark whilst driving the main road from Ullapool to Inverness, but the new-looking snow poles are great for showing the bends well in advance. The ice warning on the car changed from orange to red as the temperature dipped from the 4.0C to -2.0C as I climbed to old Aultguish Inn (Inn no more, sadly). Some lunatic decided my 50-60mph wasn’t enough and overtook me. Then another, but I was pretty convinced I would see them in a ditch somewhere further on. An ice warning and low temperature coupled with the road side ice warning signs flashing away still doesn’t deter some idiots.

Arriving in Inverness where the temperature rose, I caught the second of the overtakers back up on the Kessock bridge. It might have a little warmer, but it was still barely above freezing, and the temperature dipped again as I headed along the coast towards home.

It was a fabulous day rewarded with more great photos than I had hoped for, and proved once and for all, that you shouldn’t give up, and where possible, always wait a few more minutes, delay that ride home, and take a few chances.

 

If you enjoyed my tail, please feel free to comment, follow, share, P-interest me, or whatever. You can also purchase prints from this trip HERE