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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
I was also able to get some close-ups of plants and general location shots:
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.
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.
Mute Swan (with four signets)
Mallard (male in eclipse)
Black Headed Gull
Gadwall (also in eclipse)
Great Crested Grebe (with chicks)
Blackcaps (breeding pair, with food)
Magpie (in the car park)
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.
There is a lot of debate about RAW and JPEG, and also about excessive use of Photoshop at the moment. I have always believed in getting it right in-camera, but I also believe that Photoshop, or at least Lightroom, can be used in a way that is really no different from using a traditional darkroom (and we cheated in there too…)
I also believe that the biggest part of the decision on what is manipulation and what is simply development of the raw image lies more in the question of what the intended outcome is designed to achieve. If you are shooting news then in my opinion you should not be manipulating the image at all. You should process only to achieve the technical best in the image so that it is reproduced correctly during print or online production – compensate for limitation of the sensor in exposure etc., but do not add or remove artefacts, or anything else for that matter. Yes McCurry, I am looking at you…
This is a similar although not the same debate as that of staging photos. Let us be honest now and say that this is something that news photographers have been doing for many, many, years. Sometime you miss a shot and so you might be tempted to pop your hand in your pocket and get the protagonists to re-stage it. Trust my four years in the national news media to tell you that it happened a lot more often than people care to admit. It also has been happening since we had war artists, let alone war photographers!
Re-staging is not that different from selecting the viewpoint or lens to deliver the narrative required – look at the photos of Britain’s 2017 election involving Teresa May’s campaigning and you’ll soon get what I mean. Choosing the viewpoint, choosing the lens, and even choosing the film stock back in the days of film, all contributed to choosing the narrative or matching the image to the narrative. We were always selective, and we will always be. The direction of the editorial and the newspaper itself have always changed the focus and the narrative if the images. When we had proper employment and dedicated single paper photographers, they shot for their paper. They made decisions, even in their subconscious, about how best to capture the scene in a way that would fit with the text and context of their news team. Now, because nobody has a one paper job anymore, but is a freelance the changes are that shoots are done with a keen eye on what can be done post production as much to tailor the image to a narrative, as what used to be done to fit that narrative at the time of the shoot.
Because the viewer is getting bombarded with images via the online feeds and social media outlets, and because everyone takes photos with their phone, they are getting wiser to what can be done to images. The result of this is a growing interest in delivery of photos direct from camera, without any app or image manipulation software at all. We are going back to the time when image buyers want be more reliant on the skills of the photographer and not on the computer skills of the retoucher again.
I get this, it’s going back to the ethos of film in a way. Of course, there is then the whole argument of colour or black and white. If you are shooting in monochrome then you are already choosing to make a significant difference to the image from the reality. You can call this manipulation, processing, or just a choice in the narrative, it really doesn’t matter. All art is subjective, and everyone of us will view an image in a different way. We bring our social background, our perceptions, our interpretations, our experience, our moral and social values, and our politics to every image we see. Our brains make millions of decisions about an image in milliseconds, bringing all of our context to its content and its context.
Then there is the greater debate about inclusion, or not, at both shooting and processing stages. Is the way we crop something likely to alter its narrative? Of course it is! That is why we crop the darned thing in the first place! That or simply for aesthetics. But what about removing or adding artefacts in post production? That is another debate that will also rage on. At the end of the day, what do YOU want from your image? What is YOUR narrative? And, importantly, where are you going to use it, and how?
With all of this in mind, I have started to use the ACROS setting on my Fujifilm XT-2 quite a lot recently. To my mind it produces a very good rendition of film, although personally I preferred Ilfords’ emulsions. I’d love to see some of those resurrected as presets, but I digress.
Shooting in black and white using the ACROS setting means that the view you get from the electronic viewfinder and the screen show you what you will get as an ACROS in-camera JPEG which means you can see what you’re getting before you press the shutter button. This is a real advantage over the DSLR viewfinder and even over film cameras where you would wait until development. If you set the camera to shoot RAW and JPEG then you still have the raw images, which will be in sRGB or AdobeRGB, to do other things with it later.
Shooting in black and white, and seeing in black in white, make you consider shapes and forms, patterns and textures, contrasts, as well as composition in much more detail. In monochrome or even in a limited palate you cannot afford to have an image that is too busy: When shooting in colour then the colours will define and break up a busy image, in monochrome then as many colours are rendered very similarly, it become confusing to see the subject of the shot and the narrative can become lost in a hatch-potch of other distractions.
If you look at the image above which was shot in colour and then using layers changed into monochrome before being joined back together, the light green pencil and the orange pencil contrast beautifully, but when rendered in monochrome they are almost identical. Shooting in monochrome will force you to change the way you view the world, and that will also change the way you shoot.
Fujifilm has more than one monochrome setting so why ACROS? Well, that is actually a very personal choice and again subject to the narrative of the image you are trying to capture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the other black and white settings, and if you shoot with the X-Pro1 or XT-1, as I did, then ACROS is not available to you anyway. Shooting Monochrome with a Yellow filter is just as good for experimenting with, and whilst I like the Monochrome with a Red filter setting, personally, many people find the contrast too harsh. Again, think about the subject and the intent of the image before making a decision.
All the images up until this point where shoot in-camera using ACROS, except for the pencils of course which were shot in colour (and actually on a Canon EOS50D back in 2013!).
I like the range of tones that ACROS produces. Often I deliberately shoot monochrome during dull days where colour isn’t really an option. During those conditions I am not shooting the sky at all, but deliberately looking for textures, things with contrast that look good in isolation, and making very intentional decisions on composition. It is not that I don’t consider carefully composition at all times, but that monochrome composition is so immediate you cannot escape it.
Monochrome encourages you to really look at what you include and what you leave out of your composition, which is why it was always taught first in art schools and colleges. It was often commented that it was taught first because the processing was easier (it isn’t) or cheaper (not true either), but the truth was that shooting in monochrome cannot be lazy and so the immediacy of it in the curriculum was used to make you learn to look properly.
This is also why you would be encouraged to learn to draw before you learn to paint. Learning to create anything in art is learning to see before you learn how to render that in any media. You learn to see light and shade, form and texture, shapes, and so forth. You stop the natural habit of labelling things, and seeing in different terms. You also learn to see what to leave in, and what to leave out. In some ways it teaches you composition almost by default.
If you want to get to grips with your photography, or just take it in a new direction, then shooting in black and white will help you. And, when you do go back to colour you will be surprised how much those images also improve by the semi-automatic, or subconscious, application of the decision making processes you learned in black and white.
You will see from my site that I am a great fan of monochrome or limited palettes. I even specialised in shooting in a black and white documentary style as a wedding photographer.
I continue to use it today in my portraits, because anyone can take a selfie and capture a likeness of their physical selves, but when I take a portrait I want to capture the essence of the person rather than make a direct pictorial representation. Frequently I don’t event concentrate on capturing the face in great detail but in capturing that person’s character and personality. I try to create an image that speaks of the person to those who know them and informs even the casual viewer about this person rather than asking them to make a judgement about their mere countenance.
A word of caution here though; ACROS is not always the best setting for portraits because it can increase the contrast just a little too much thus creating issues for any hint of an imperfect skin, and face it (pun intended) who doesn’t have some imperfections. Again, it is a choice as part of the narrative as to what and how we portray this.
One of the difficulties of digital monochrome, compared to traditional monochrome films, is the lack of grain. This does mean that if you truly want it to look like film you might find yourself adding a little, but if you’re shooting in low light at the higher ISO settings this will add some for you without too much trouble. Whilst Fujifilm’s excellent high ISO capability is a bonus for much of a photographers work, it does mean that we are left devoid of some of those film characteristics which even their own film types once made attractive. Noise in colour is bad, but noise in monochrome can be a benefit. It gives us back that pushed film qualities and high contrast monochrome film grains we have otherwise lost. There are now a number of presets to create film realistic noise in our digital images, which is quite ironic given the huge sums Fuji-film, Nikon, and the other manufacturers have spent in the past twenty years trying to eliminate it.
Our love affair with different film emulsions has never gone away, at least not for those old enough to remember film emulsions that is. Photography, film, media, and art students now are hungrily buying up film cameras, and seeing for themselves what they are missing in this great digital age. Fujifilm have lovingly attempted to, and been largely successful at, creating film replication settings in-camera and many others have got in on the act with apps and presets, but noise and grain are not quite the same.
Film isn’t dead, it just isn’t necessarily an emulsion based physical artefact anymore when a digital artefact can do a decent job to replicate it. ACROS gives us another way into this without post production – and time with your camera is always preferable to time with your computer if you’re a true photographer.
Long live Black & White photography – in whatever form.
I admit it, I have a slight obsession with the Isle of Skye. But, once you’ve experienced the joys and variety of this island then you would understand.
Having enjoyed the last three day trip, but been foiled by a lack of nerves on the Quiriang, in the dark, and foiled by having too good weather, I decided to return for another three day trip. Where, I was spoiled, and yet again largely foiled, but yet more unseasonably good weather!
Having received the Cokin Z-Pro filters on the Thursday I was keen get out and try them, especially after the test shots from my last blog post. These were just what I needed to make the most of the Skye landscape.
Friday dawned cold, dull, grey, and very windy, again and I headed out to repeat the route of the previous trip and get some of the shots that I felt that I had missed previously.
I got a decent enough shot of Beinn Eighe, this time around, although I still wasn’t happy with it to publish it. I think the majestic mountains of the Torridon area of the Scottish Highlands could become my new muse, if I ever tire of Skye.
Hoping the dull day would give better lighting to the Fairy Glen, near Uig, I wasn’t too dismayed by the weather and hoped for the best. I think the more even light, coupled with arriving a wee bit earlier so I had longer to explore, certainly gave a more accurate rendition of the landscape and better results:
Having spent the day travelling I was delighted to reach the accommodation for the next two nights at Whitewave, just four miles to the north of Uig on the Trotternish peninsular to the northern most end of Skye.
Settling into the pod, with a salad and a pint of Skye Red, to watch one of Skye’s highlights, the sunset, was a beautiful end to the day.
The colours reflected beautifully in the patio doors of the deluxe en-suite pod:
Finally, as the sun set, the light fooling the camera’s exposure meter, where I gave it a stop less to deepen those colours and stop the sun from blowing it’s highlights. Tomorrow was going to be a good day. You know what they say about a red sky at night being tomorrow’s delight:
The morning broke early, far too early for me to get up onto the ridge for the sunrise this time. The difference a few weeks can make to the time of sunrise in Scotland is not to be underestimated. In summer, this far north, we have light well beyond bedtime (that is after 11pm) whilst in winter we see very little (11am-3pm being and optimistic “best” of it). Of course, it is worst still for our more northern friends on Shetland, for whom it barely, if at all, gets light in the winter, or conversely, dark in the summer.
For me, I am back to being a sunset photographer by the end of march. I am not a morning person. But next morning the sun was up, and Patches was enjoying the view from the pod:
The plan for Saturday was to avoid the crowds, and the scary path, by heading into the Quiriang from the Flodigarry path.
It was impossible to get a decent mobile signal, and there was no wifi, which is a dream in some respects, but a nightmare in others. Whilst I was happy to be largely out of contact with the outside world, I missed being able to get a weather report for the day.
The weather can change on Skye in moments, and you can have every season in one day, although this morning was sunny and wall to wall blue I hoped it wouldn’t be another ‘chocolate box’ day.
There was nothing for it anyway, that is the joy of being a landscape photographer, making the most of what you get.
And so, we headed off…
It always seems slightly criminal to complain about the weather being too good, but for a photographer, a blue cloudless sky can spell disaster. If nothing else, we would have a good walk and view it as a recce for the future. The route from Flodigarry appears on the map to be quite easy, but it is in fact a hard uphill slog, especially into a strong relentless head wind, that goes on for miles and incorporates two stiles, one of which is clearly now so eroded at the base to the extent that anyone under six foot will find it ‘interesting’.
The vertiginous drops of the easier, more level, route I had wished to avoid are not avoided at all, and by adding erosion, water courses, and mud, lots of mud, I think the route chosen may have actually been the more difficult of the two. The uncoordinated mountain goat aspect of my persona came to the fore, and I cannot say I was graceful on much of the expedition, least of all that stile, but thankfully at least using the quiet path meant that I didn’t have an audience.
I had hoped this route would afford different perspectives on the Quiriang, but as it turns out you join the same path as the popular route before reaching the most interesting bits. Combined with the blue, blue, sky, it was a case of make the best of what you have.
Sometimes it is literally a case of finding the right spot, and as the sun was still not completely overhead and the shadows still impenetrably deep in places, finding that spot was quite easy. With plenty of thank you, excuse me, smiles and waves, you navigate the single track walkway without passing places in the same way as you navigate many of Skye’s roads; with patient and polite Britishness.
With not a cloud in the sky in any direction, and therefore no hope of an interesting back drop, I decided to concentrate on the formations rather than their larger situation and went in close wth a slight telephoto to capture the majestic details:
I also wanted to shoot from below to emphasise the size of the formations and that they do tower above you on the paths below. The Needle is more traditionally photographed from it’s back side towards Staffin, but this shot taken from the path, actually shows what the majority if visitors see.
Having crossed paths with at least five nationalities, it was time for a quick lunch and then returning to the car the way we had come. I had scratched the itch from last time, reaffirmed my assumption that I was close but not close enough for the sunrise last time, and we had enjoyed a good walk.
We reached the dreaded stile, just as five chaps, backpacking the length of the ridge, came to it from the other direction. The only other people seen on the entire Flodigarry route would provide the audience from my descent of the 3.5ft precipice from the leg of the stile into the mud below. With some self depreciating humour I bested the said stile with as much panache as I could muster, my knees thanking me later, for both the long down hill, the rough path, the muddy slides, and patches of deep sucking gunk.
Talking of Patches of deep sucking gunk, he was in his element, knee then almost groin deep in the stuff, and loving every minute of it. My car will smell lovely, I thought.
Returning this way does deliver a fabulous view to the mountains of the Western Highlands on the mainland, with their snow dusted peaks glistening in the distance.
Having reached the car and driving down through Staffin on to Portree to get something for dinner, the smells emanating from Patches in the back of the car was not as bad as I had imagined.
The ‘two pot’ master camper’s casserole was on the menu for evening (one pot tinned beef stew with added tinned carrots, one pot boiled tinned potatoes), accompanied, perhaps by now unsurprisingly, with Skye Red beer. You can’t be driving though Uig past the brewery without some, surely.
It was a good walk, and a good sleepy dog, tired legs, and some decent shots in the bag, in spite of the ridiculously good March weather.
Sunday came by too quickly and it was time to leave for home. As you will know if you follow me, this wasn’t going to be the direct route home and I wanted to explore one last bit of Skye before I went.
The road to Elgol takes you past the wonder of Bla Bheinn, or Blaven, an outlier of the Black Cuillin of Skye. Composed of black gabbo it towers behind Loch Slapin and can been clearly seen from Torrin and Kilbride. The wee house gives you an idea of it’s scale, please forgive the unobliging sheep’s bottom, she was obviously camera shy.
After many a wave and an excuse me, you finally arrive at the end of the single track road (yes, another one) and to discover the full horseshoe of the Cuillin spread before you, across Loch Scavaig.
Arguably the best place to view the almost entire range, with most of it’s twelve Munros (aside from Blaven) available to be seen in one single image.
The filters I had even wanting to try were deployed, whilst attempting to keep the reality of the view as the eye saw it. It was a clear enough day not to require a polariser, something I don’t yet have in the 100mm size, and just a 2-stop soft grad was all that was needed to create the shot above.
Elgol is still a very active crofting and fishing village, with creel pots lined up at the pier, a cafe (not open Sundays), a church, and the most beautiful cottages. I could live here, if I had a 4×4 to ensure I could get back out of there again.
As well as the landscape, which created my favourite shot of the trip, there is also the opportunity to get some nature studies:
And also to experiment with black and white on the older pier and surrounding buildings.
This one is ideally suited to the new Acros Fuji film replication setting.
It was great to return to my favourite island of Skye again, especially before the midges are about, and also to find a new place to stay. It is one which I will certainly use again. I was pleased with the results from using the Cokin Z-Pro filters, although I will have to invest in a polariser at some point. My Gitzo Mountaineer provided excellent stability once again, although spiked feet are still on the wish list to provide even more stability on softer soils and sand.
Elgol provides a bed of slippery sea weed and care must be taken when crossing the beach to get your shot. The slippery sea weed is also rotting, and therefore smelly, and Patches delighted in laying in it, and then stinking out the back of my car all the way home for emphasise.
I was sad to leave Skye after just three days but it does leave me wanting to go back, perhaps the weather won’t be quite too nice next time…
Fujifilm XT-2 body with Fuji 16-55/2.8 lens
Cokin Z-pro series filters and holder with 77mm adapter ring
Gitzo Mountaineer carbon fibre tripod with Manfrotto magnesium head
Lowepro BP350AW Whistler camera rucksack
Lexar 16GB and 32GB x1000 speed memory cards (16GB for in-camera Jpegs and 32GB for raw)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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:
The sun is out, the sky is blue, etc etc. This is boring. I want thunderstorms, or at least some dramatic clouds, some interesting lighting, and maybe potential downpours with deep blue threatening skies. Completely unlike my fellow hotel guests, who couldn’t be more delighted (I heard them at breakfast) at the wonderful, unseasonal, sunny weather. It appears that many of them are already out (but I wasn’t last to breakfast).
Breakfast done, and I have the OS Map (number 408 if the fancy takes you) spread out across the whole of my single bed. I am pondering what I can photograph, in chocolate box sunny weather.
Well, I have tried the ‘interesting’ shortcut road to Staffin, so why not take the long way round?
I often take the long way around to everything, it’s a bit like travel dithering (see part 1).
The light and the sky is boring, but the landscape isn’t, so let’s make the best of it. I saw a Photographic guidebook to Skye in Portree yesterday. I didn’t buy it. I wanted to call it the Honeypot Guide, in my mind. What could be worse than showing you all the places you don’t want to go because everyone, and their dog, is now going there. That’s my theory anyway. Of course, you need to bag those shots I guess, of the famous bits (and there are many), but at least don’t stand in a row next to ten other people doing just that!
(If you think I am exaggerating, there were ten people, nine with tripods, all set up next to other in a neat little row, by the Slig’ bridge, in the really bad light, in mid-week, in mid-February)…
I head off towards Flodingarry, for no other reason than I like the name.
Thinking I have the place to myself, I am happy pottering about, when I am then succeeded by another photographer, and a chap who may well have been a paid guide. I wonder if it was the chap who wrote the book?
Still cold, but not so windy, I can now get the tripod up without relying on some weighty anchorage now. I wandered around for a while looking at angles, but needed a pee (too much tea) so headed off again fairly quickly once the other chap arrived.
Had an ‘Outlander’ moment, or at least I guess it’s in Outlander, or something like it, purely due to the number of people staring at it. I’m not sure why it’s Falls, plural, I could only see the one, but never mind.
The sun was high up by now and so the contrast was difficult again. I would imagine after some decent rain the waterfall is even more impressive. Evidently, if the tide is out, there are dinosaur footprints to be seen. The tide wasn’t out, and to be honest, it wasn’t that impressive. Having said that, I didn’t think much of Stonehenge (I prefer Avebury).
From there I found myself heading towards Portree again, and I toyed with the idea of the Storr, but I figured it would be heaving with people, and I wouldn’t get the effect I wanted due to the (continuing) chocolate box sky. It’s Skye, in February, it isn’t supposed to let you leave your coat in the car and wander about in a fleece, moaning about the nice weather!
I ate my chocolate mini-rolls and drunk my sports drink (my staple daytime diet on photoshoots) whilst consulting the map again. Back round the top, back the way I have come. It may sound silly, but sometimes facing the other way you see things you wouldn’t have seen the first time. That is why I don’t mind out and back walks, it saves constantly spinning around to check you’re not missing a great view.
Duntelm Castle is slowly disappearing into the sea with various storms. One tower collapsed completely in 1990, and every winter will probably claim more until there is nothing much left above ground level. Originally an Iron Age fortified site, the current castle, if you can call the ruins that are left a castle, was already a ruin by 1880, but is thought to date from the 15th and 16th Centuries when it belonged to the MacDonalds of Sleat. They abandoned it in around 1730, in favour of their nearby house, and then not much later again, their castle at Armadale at the other end of Skye. The MacDonalds appear to have held either end of Skye with the MacLeods having the bit in the middle. That can’t have been easy. Those guys have a serious history of not getting along.
Incidentally, the film Highlander was historically wrong, the MacLeods didn’t hold the castle in the film (Eilean Donan), the MacRae’s did, and still do, and it’s not on the side of Glenfinnan either. The MacLeod’s also, technically, own the Cuillin, as it is part of their estate.
For the second time on this trip I wished for a wider angled lens. I miss nothing about my Nikon set up aside from my Tokina 12-24mm zoom . I would like the Fujifilm 12-24mm zoom 10-24mm but I would like it with weather sealing for the price they’re asking. There is a rumour that a weather sealed 8-16mm might be on the way, and that really would be a nice piece of kit.
On my outward journey I had passed these traditional croft houses, reconstructed I think, at the Skye Museum of Island Life (closed for winter, including the toilets, sadly). I stopped this time around. This is also just down from the graveyard which holds the remains and memorial to Flora Macdonald, she of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s fame.
Flora was born on South Uist (accessible by taking the ferry from Uig) in 1722. She died at the nearby Kingsburgh house in 1790. When Charlie’ was escaping Scotland, following his defeat in the 1746 uprising which was ended at Culloden, she allowed him to join her party, dressed him as her maid Betty Burke, and enabled his escape. I have always wondered if Charlie was very feminine and rather pretty or if Betty was, well, not the most attractive lady in the world…
She, Flora that is, was later held prisoner in the Tower of London, before being pardoned in 1747. She later married Allan Macdonald of Kingsburgh and they both emigrated to America in 1774. After Allan was captured during the American Revolutionary War, fighting for the British, she returned alone to Scotland in 1779. Allan later rejoined her. The memorial to Flora, and many members of the family, is situated in Kilmuir graveyard just along from the croft houses. It’s a huge Celtic cross decorated with knotwork. I didn’t photograph it, as I always feel a bit off photographing peoples graves.
Funnily enough, after visiting the reconstruction, I then took some turns off towards the various piers and smaller townships on the way back to Uig, and came across some of these types of houses, having been partially modernised, and still very much in use today. Restricted by a fence, and with smoke from the muirburn going on around them, I got the best shot that I could get.
One or more of these muirburns had got out of control a wee bit the night before, and even made the BBC News. Spectacular as it was, serious in its threat, it was nothing on the events unfolding on the other side of the world at Christchurch, New Zealand. My thoughts go out to those who have lost their homes, and especially the family of the person who has lost their life.
Although I had been out shooting on and off since before sunrise, I wasn’t done yet. As the sun made its way down to the horizon again, the clouds had started to build in the west. The forecast for tomorrow could potentially produce some interesting skies and I was hopeful for a good day of photography on the return journey home. I had originally planned to extend my trip to Glencoe, or stopping overnight as I passed back through Torridon, but the forecast for a dull, wet, Thursday and even wetter Friday, and that meant I was planning on going home (a long way around) for the end of Day 3.
*A single life had been reported at the time of writing.
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).
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).
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.
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…
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.
As I live in the Moray coast, any trip to the Isle of Skye results in a choice of routes through the Highlands, and with check-in at the hotel in Uig not anticipated until at least 4pm, I had spent a couple of days working out the most photographically productive route.
With snow on the tops, and a promise that there might be some lower down, it was a calculated risk to take the longest route possible through Torridon where I hoped to photograph mighty Liathach.
The weather was almost perfect, clouds with plenty of movement, and breaks for the sun to come through and highlight areas of the landscape. Almost perfect; of course lots of movement actually means that it was also blowing a hoolie so much that you could be taking off your feet by the gusts and the windchill was well, well, below freezing.
Armed with the new Fujifilm XT-2 I was delighted to have the luxury of dual card slots, so I was shooting RAW files to Slot 1, and in-camera jpegs to Slot 2. This would provide a back-up and also access to immediate files en-route for posting to my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, hopefully from the hotel, without having to try and process raw files on an 11″ MacBook Air monitor. Whilst compact and handy, the screen is too small for proper editing.
Although I really liked the convenience of this idea, and of having the reassurance of a back-up image, the raw files still carry noticeably more detail and, to me, an improved dynamic range. I am impressed with the quality of the in-camera jpegs, but sometimes you don’t have the time to adjust all the settings, or want to review a decision later when you come to use the images, and raw will always give you the options to change things that would degrade the image if you did it with the jpeg. Shooting in jpeg is rather like shooting film, you get what you shot, which is no bad discipline and I am all for getting it right at the time, but then if digital gives you an advantage of being able to change your mind later…then why not use it? I might shoot in colour and then decide to print in B&W or vice-versa. I might want to tweak the white balance, and I might need to rescue areas that fell outside of the dynamic range of the in-camera processing. Get it as right as possible at the time of shooting, but allow yourself the latter options in processing, just as you did with film/darkroom processes.
The clouds popped on and off the top of the wind blasted snow topped mountain, every few moments, for me. Judging by the number of cars in the parking areas, there were some seriously hardy souls climbing today (probably on their hands and knees if the wind was anything to go by).
I had taken the Ullapool road (A835) from north of Inverness, turning just after Garve towards Achnasheen, then towards Kinlochewe, taking the turn for Shieldaig (A896). This route took me just shy of the village of Torridon itself.
The wind kept up it’s ferociousness, which meant hanging my Lowepro Whistler BP350AW camera bag from the hook on the column of my Gitzo Mountaineer, and certainly not extending any more height than absolutely necessary.
Although the Gitzo extends to be taller than I am, I don’t like shooting even at my 5′ 4″ standing height anyway. The loss of the reflections on the water, again due to the wind, were the only disappointment.
I stopped at the Lochcarron Golf Club & Tea Room, known as the Tee-Off cafe, which was one of the few things open in my journey at this time of year. Not only was the lemon drizzle cake to die for, but the tea was served in a generous two cup pot, and the view was just spectacular. I whole heartedly recommend it!
Cresting the top of the A890 from Lochcarron to where it joins the main A87 heading for Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye bridge, you are suddenly presented with the Five Sisters of Kintail, on this occasion in their wonderful winter whites.
After many different attempts to get the best final image, I have settled on the new Fujifilm ACROS setting to bring out the shape of the Sisters. Even this required me to burn in the Sisters whilst holding back the centre ground hill.
From the generous viewpoint it is a drop down and into the Kyle of Lochalsh. This is where you really feel like you’re almost there as Skye appears before you. Of course, Skye is a large island and so unless you’re staying in Broadford or Kyleakin then you’ll probably have another hour, at least, to go on your journey.
The, no longer quite so controversial, Skye bridge takes you from the Kyle of Lochalsh to the north of the township of Kyleakin. By now it was around 1pm and I wanted to photograph the Cuillin mountain range from Sligachan, before taking the road into Portree (Skye’s ‘capital’). The “Slig” as it is commonly abbreviated to, is a famous hotel situated aside the road which also has a campsite, both were closed. I have only been there once, when it was open, and the midges were so bad I didn’t get out the car! In winter, the midges are not a problem as it’s too cold, and frequently far too windy.
The sun was the problem on this occasion because, it was of course in the wrong place, and I was presented with a bright cloudless (and therefore boring) blue sky, masses of contrast, plus I would be shooting into directly into the sun. I noted a need to re-time my return journey, if possible, and carried on to Portree.
Stopping to visit the town centre and a stretch of the legs, I was surprised to see several buildings closed, but heartened to see refurbishments taking place. There was also a lot more ‘tourist’ orientated shops than I remembered. I found a newsagents to get a drink, and admired some very nice (£35) hand painted mugs in another shop as I wandered about. I admired them through the window only, it should be said. You’d nae want to use them at that price!
The main road from Portree to Uig is a delight compared to many islands (Arran, I am looking at you here). Reaching Uig, just as the school delivered out the double figure age kids, I had a little time to visit the Fairy Glen slightly inland of the port township. I don’t know if the Fairies have anything to do with it, but a lot of kids around the same age seem to live up in the glen because they were happily wandering about the paths making their ways home.
I had been intrigued by the photos that I had seen of the landscape here, and I was not disappointed. The top peninsular, is Totternish, and if you have been around or just viewed pictures of the Totternish ridge then the Fairy Glen is very familiar, but on a considerably reduced scale. As the sun was going down behind the mountain, there wasn’t much time for wandering about and I didn’t get to visit the waterfall.
The sun was dipping fast, and the light was about to go. The temperature, which had been approaching double figures, was dropping like a stone with it. Back on with the hat, gloves, duvet jacket, and wishing for some thermal underwear again. I make a hasty retreat by the last of the light back to Uig (pronounced “oo’ig” by the way).
It was time to sample the delights of my hotel, and plan Day 2.
Let me start with a disclaimer; I am not a Fuji X Photographer, I am not sponsored by Fujifilm in away, and I buy all my own equipment with my own hard earned money.
Now I have that out the way, I will also say that this isn’t a technical review of the Fujifilm XT-2. The web is full of these, I know, I’ve read and/or watched most of them.
A castle, a waterfall, and the Fuji XT-2
As you can see, I shoot a lot in portrait format. This is because magazines (and of course their lucrative covers) are this shape, so it makes sense. I always shoot a portrait and a landscape version of every image wherever possible for this very reason; a cover in portrait or double page spread in landscape, or something smaller in either format, and I am almost always covered.
This is where the XT-2 has a real advantage – the new screen flips out in portrait mode, which means I have the modern equivalent of a waist level finder (i.e the screen) in both landscape and portrait orientation. This is great, I like this feature very much, although the catch to release the screen in portrait mode is just ridiculously hard to operate once it is rotated on the tripod (at therefore now under the camera) and probably, as least so far, impossible to do with gloves on. Today, gloves were very much needed, it’s February, it’s Scotland, there is SNOW on the hills, and I mean the hills as well as the mountains. It was cold, damp, sometimes wet, blowing a hoolie as they say in these part, and frequently darned right unpleasant.
Another immediate advantage, and great with gloves, is the joystick focus point adjuster. I had my four way buttons set for this on the XT-1, which reduced my access to common settings by reducing my Fn, or function, buttons by three, but it made life easier for many a shot. The joystick means I now have my four way buttons set for useful things I like, not the defaults by the way, and I still have the even more instant directional control of the focus point. I like this very much, very much indeed.
The tripod socket is now where it always should have been, and without having to buy the extra grip, although I miss a little the depth of that extra grip. The new body is more ergonomic than before, although still not DSLR hand friendly, but I will get used to it. I contemplated the battery grip but it added to the size and weight of the camera and they didn’t have any available anyway.
I like the locking dials. I wish the compensation dial also locked, but it is noticeably stiffer than the XT-1 and much, much, stiffer than the XPro-1, which was always moving around with the slightest touch and causing many problems if it went un-noticed, which it did, when using filters and a tripod and being lazy and thinking exposure was ‘sorted’.
I like the four metering patterns instead of original three. I actually use all the patterns, and even today used all four during shooting. The zone metering, or whatever Fuji are calling it, seems to be quite accurate for most circumstances. I still like Average for the landscapes and spot for working out the grad filters required to balance the sky to the land.
I also like the fact I can use a traditional cable release, and I have ordered one from Amazon (which should arrive by the weekend). Today I used the self timer, as I have previously with the XT-1, whilst using longer exposures or on a tripod, or both. With any exposure over 1/30 section I don’t like to touch the camera if I can help it. Why use a tripod and then let your body interfere with the stability?…makes no sense to me.
What don’t I like? Well, actually, there is one big niggle – what the hell have Fuji done with the bloody menu’s?!?
Things I use often, like Format, now require press, scroll, press, press (instead of just press, press). Some menu’s have new titles which mean nothing, or certainly seem a great way of hiding what you’re looking for. Sure, there are more options, and many more menu’s, or least it seems, but you can’t find anything. I spent several frustrating minutes setting up each of my common functions or preferences last night. And I am still trawling through menu after obscure menu to do simple adjustments in the field today. Thank heavens for the MY Menu, obviously someone at Fuji thought the same thing as me! But…why can’t I put second tier menu items in it? I want to put Format in it, but no, first tier only and not all of them are available either.
There are things I want routinely that are hidden in the ‘Save Data Set-up’, like Switch Slot (Sequential). Why can’t I have something simple like Save Image, and then just Slots, and Slot 1, Slot 2, order? Nikon do this much better.
And why did it default to use Slot2 first? Where did that idea come from? Again, please look at Nikon menus. Btw, I think having two SD card slots is a great idea of course. I can have sequential running, and back up. I don’t shoot JPEG and RAW, just RAW, but if you really wanted to, you could have a card for each. You would need to make the RAW card a lot bigger naturally.
I actually needed the manual to decipher one third of the options; Save Org Image for example.And why is Format for the SD cards under User Setting? It used to be under the spanner symbol, at the bottom, easy to find.
And used to be second layer, now it’s hidden away under three layers of menu. It may not be annoying when you only need to do one card, but trust me, sit and do 10 of them and it will drive you nuts.
some reason working on Fuji files this afternoon crashed my LR three times over.
But what is also worrying me, aside from awkwardness of use at the moment compared to the XT-1, is that I am now doing a bit more work in Lightroom than I ever did with Fuji products before. Ok, I have to get used to the new camera, but the RAW files do seem to need more tweaking for the same results. It could be that LR has yet to catch up with the new files of course. That would make sense since the compressed RAW files don’t have a preview at the moment, and so I am reluctant to use them. LR also crashed three times this afternoon, the first time I had tried processing the new RAW files. At least it can actually open them though. I remember a few occasions when a camera would come out and it would be three months before you could open the RAW files from it in anything other than the manufacturers, usually awful, preparatory software.
Of course, all of these things I will get used to. Even an upgrade needs to be considered as a new camera. The XT-1 and the XT-2 look similar, and the dials and physical controls might be the same, but as soon as you look at the EVF or the screen you know its a difference beast.
A plus and a minus for those of us to whom age is not being kind in the eyesight department; the diopter adjustment works perfectly (wish it was lockable) and the eyecup is an improvement for spectacle wearers, but the text and symbols on the display appear smaller (same size, more dots per inch?). Anyway, its a pain. I was already having to take off my glasses to use the XT-1, but now I really do need to consider varifocals!
And there is something really weird about the noise…it looks like little worms. I had a look at the sky (base ISO 200) and at 4:1 enlargement, there are what look like little worms. Weird. I will keep and eye on the worms and put up an screen grab if I spot them again…
I also need to change the sharpening from my previous settings (which I used for all images) and will need to create a new preset. I now need a 1.5 radius instead of 1.0, and change the gain to 30% instead of 50%. I did expect this to change, due to the increased resolution of the new sensor. Talking of which, can I see more detail? Actually well yes, a little bit. A very little bit, but then I have retina screen 27″iMac to see it on. I have not compared the prints, and as I don’t have the XT-1 anymore I cannot shoot the two side-by-side for a direct comparison. But this is all very scientific and at the end of the day there are more important (to me) considerations. The main one for me is the ability to crop a landscape into a portrait if I wasn’t able to shoot both that the same time. I always shoot the landscape first, in case the light changes dramatically or for the worse, as this then will give me some portrait option, although not idea.
Obviously, this reduces the image at least by half, and when you have more pixels that half isn’t half as bad.
For some reason, images saved for the web in Landscape are far better than images saved for the web in portrait format, even thought the settings are the same, and resizing is done for longest edge. To see what I mean, look at the rendition of the ‘last XT-1’ shoot image, and compare that with the Linn Falls shot. Both same lens, both same tripod.
And to compare like for like, both XT-2, look at the Craigellachie bridge image compared with the Linn Falls image.
So, conclusions from todays shoot: I would say is that the higher resolution sensor is more demanding. It is more demanding of the photographers technique, and of the lenses naturally, but it is also very demanding of the filters. The only difference between the last shot and the first shot shown here was the bridge had no filter use. The hand held shot was in extremely windy conditions, and freezing cold, so I am happy to take the wrap for user error. But I really think that my, somewhat well used, filters may have to be replaced, again. The resolution is definitely effected by putting my filters in front of the premium glass. Damn…
I would add to this that the XT-2 is a joy to handle, if you’re old school, and grew up with film cameras and still work using fully manual operations. It is quiet, the focus is much more reliable, quicker, and requires a small focus point, although perhaps not as small as I would have hoped. Precision is key, but this difference is really going to apply to shallow depth of field or portrait work more than landscapes. With landscapes we are often shooting at f16 so there is a lot more latitude in where you place the focus point in the scene than if you need to get the eyes spot on with an f1.8 portrait, for example.
I often use the depth scale for landscape work, although I am a bit confused by the two calculations offered by Fuji in the XT-2. I want a simply metres distant, show me nearest point and furthest point. Now there are two settings, and they don’t make much sense at least to me. This is something I will only be able to work out if I have access to a lens with a scale on it and manual focus really. Sadly at the moment, I don’t. Zooms don’t often have scales, because they would change and that creates a headache for the designer and added expense in manufacture. For now, its play around with it, bracket, review, and continue to evaluate.
I also admit that I have work to do on my handheld techniques, but this won’t do me any harm, and I have spend so much time using my tripod since I got the Gitzo that I can’t actually remember the last time I was working hand-held. Practice makes perfect as they say, and practice has to be kept up. Mind you, it was spectacularly windy and that’s my excuse (and I’m sticking to it).
One last thing: ACROS is really nice, it reminds me of Ilford’s slow B&W film, FP4? Maybe, can’t quite remember. Of course, that might not be what Fujifilm wanted to hear, but then it could equally have inspired the settings for all I know. It’s just a shame I can’t use it retrospectively on the XT-1 images…the standard Monochrome from Fuji is bland by comparison and I get fed up with concocting my own combinations.
So, there we have it. Rather longer blog entry than anticipated, but hopefully of use to someone. If you like it, or even just find it slightly useful, then please share it.
A little bit of history…
Well, I fell in love with photography using fully manual 35mm film cameras (Olympus mainly, then more latterly Nikon). I then fell in love with medium format (Hasselblad 500C’s), and in particular the advantages to image quality of the larger film size coupled with the waist level finder.
When the world began its love affair with digital, I was an ‘early adopter’ as it came with my job. A conspiracy between Kodak and Nikon, produced a beast of a battery attached to a 35mm camera knock off body, with a teeny tiny sensor, and around 3MP (and all for the same price as the house I was living in at the time). I kid you not.
Being an ‘early adopter’ of the digital sphere does mean I know what you can do with very, very little. I was producing brochures with technology that would now be dwarfed by a very cheap and nasty PAYG phone! If I can make 6×4 prints from 3MP then to me, the pixel race was over around 10MP, or the mid noughties.
When DSLR prices became within mortal reach, and we had 1.5x APS-C sensors, I opted for the Sony Alpha. Due to the lack of choice for lenses, this was soon to be replaced by the Nikon D80, then the D200 (the last CCD sensor and CMOS colours etc. are nowhere near as good), then full frame with the Nikon D700. Some domestic issues meant I was forced to sell up and so when I finally got back on my feet, I troubled myself with a Canon (cheaper good glass) for a while, a very brief while, because it failed me mid shoot just days out of warranty. Funnily enough, my only foray with a film Canon ended the same way, on holiday, in Keswick, in the early ’90s.
I then tried the fairly new Fuji X-Pro1. I loved it, the lenses were fantastic. The camera…was not so much. But my affair with Fuji had started, mainly as the colours were fabulous (and reminiscent of the films I loved of old). The glass quality was there and the range increasing, slowly. At the time, I wasn’t so keen on the Rangefinder approach, and the lack of long lenses as I was going through a wildlife phase. But I can’t deny the quality of the images if I put the effort in.
At the time, Fuji wasn’t offering much else. So, with reluctance, but due mainly to need for the work I was doing, I moved back to Nikon. A D3200, was swiftly followed by a D7100. At this point my age caught up with me, and I became very tired (and sore) of lugging around good, but silly heavy, decent Nikon glass. You may have guessed that I have always placed an emphasis on good glass over even half good bodies. The glass is the bit between you and the image you want. A cheap lens on an expensive body will so every fault, a good lens on a cheaper body (within reason) will surprise you.
I was getting on with the D7100. Sure it wasn’t full frame, but it had enough control and enough resolution and resolving power to do the job. I printed 3ft x 2ft prints of the D200, so I really don’t get the whole MP battle so much. To me, it is the dynamic range I am paying attention to, and the ease of capturing what I want to capture. Sadly, clients seem obsessed by those blasted pixie counts and don’t seem to realise by the time I have turned the high resolution TIFF into an email’able JPEG, the whole question is no longer remotely relevant!
Anyway, by this point, dear Fuji had just come out with the XT-2, and that made a plethora of used XT-1’s within affordable reach. I had coveted the XT-1 when I traded in the XPro-1 (for some nice binoculars at the time).
I went to the Fuji open day at Ffordes, one of those few occasions when they open at the weekend!
(Yes guys, that is a huge brick-through-the-window sized hint. I bet if you opened just Saturday mornings, you’d sell loads of gear to people resident from Aberdeen to Inverness and beyond, who really don’t want to be stuck with Argos and Jessops as their only non-mailorder options.)
Anyway, whilst men with deodorant related issue drooled over the XT-2 almost as much as they did over the model, I tried and then bought an XT-1, and some really nice prime glass (glass over bodies as always).
Then a few months later I nearly dropped two prime lenses in a swamp-like loch and decided to get a zoom instead. I went the whole hog and got the 16-55/2.8 monster.
So, there you have it. A brief history of my digital SLR and mirrorless cameras and bringing us up to the image below. Shot two weeks ago, and sold several times over on stock and print sites online since.
If I was happy with the XT-1 then why change it? Well, the focus of the XT-1 is not reliable, or very quick. There are cumbersome operational issues the XT-2 looks likely to fix (position of tripod socket so you can change the battery without taking it off the tripod or taking off the tripod quick release plate, access to the focus points, the portrait tilt screen, just to name three).
Logically, when funds permitted (and greatly encouraged by finding out my Fuji XT-1 had 10 dead pixels in a row across the middle of the sensor, and also finding out, at the same time, that it was almost out of warranty) and the move to the XT-2 was a “no-brainer” as they say.
So on Tuesday, I picked one up. Which is actually quite difficult, as most suppliers have long back orders with Fuji (one way to retain the initial momentum and keep the price high…). Today, I took it out for a test run.