New Year – New Skye

I know, I know, you don’t have to remind me. Yes, I said I was done with the Isle of Skye. Too many tourists, too many photographers, too many images splashed about all over the internet. Done to death…or so I thought.

But sometimes you get an invitation you just cannot resist…

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I have never been one for following the crowd like sheep, although for some reason I frequently find them endearingly photogenic. It is very true that I had indeed had quite enough of Skye after my fifth visit of 2017; jostling with the tourists, and swearing loudly as they, in the main, continue to demonstrate that they have no idea how to drive on a single track road, or deal with the said sheep.

(Helpful tip – just drive at them, they move)

I had got this chance to see a part of Skye that, aside from one particular lighthouse, is not really part of the tourist trail. It is too far for the casual tourist, doesn’t attract the serious hillwalkers or climbers, and from initial inspection of an OS map doesn’t appear to hold anything that might attract the photographer either.

But, my invitation wasn’t to Blythe the photographer, or Blythe the writer, but to Blythe the soul within. Photography was just a bonus and so, from that point of view, I had no expectations or pre-planned desires. I was, an open book, waiting for something to fill the pages.

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Neist Point – and that particular lighthouse

The weather was what you’d expect from Skye in winter – it was cold, wet, snowing in the mountains, and just…well…fairly crap everywhere else.

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Although it did give us a rainbow or two, from the warmth of the cottage.

I first went out to Skye before the New Year, on one of those non-days that occur between the festivities of Christmas and the celebrations that greeted the start of 2018.

It was completely unexpected, but quite delightful, and although I only stayed the one night (having been partially rescued from the icy roads, and having abandoned, ie. safely parked in a bay) my car near the Sligachan Inn, the trip provided me with a view of Skye I had not seen before. It also provided me with delightful company, and the invitation to return for the Hogmanay.

The weather at home was a passable coldness, with light snow and nothing to worry about, the weather at the remote NW of Skye was equally even handed, but the weather in the middle of the two was ice and snow, and many degrees below freezing. I had planned to stay at the Cluanie Inn on that first night, but it was shut and I was faced with the (to be honest not very) difficult choice of a night away or a potentially hazardous journey after dark. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut instincts.

I was supposed to travel back again on the 31st but would I make it? The forecast was for more snow, more ice, more very low below freezing temperatures, and you only get one shot every 12 months to start a New Year. There was only one thing for it, to return on the 30th, a day early. I made it in before the snow came down in the heavy falls that beset the roads again, driving with the snow chasing my tail all the way from Drumnadrochit to the Skye Bridge.

Folk think when they reach the bridge they are best part there, but in truth Skye is a bigger island that many give credit for, and it can take the same time again to reach your final destination. From Broadford the weather sort of improved; from the cold ice and snow to a cold rain and hail. I took the Slig’ turning for Dunvegan and moved westwards to find, thankfully, much less snow and ice than had caught me out on the preceding Wednesday.

On reaching Dunvegan I was then back to that unloved single track for the last of the stretch through Glendale and onto the wee township of Milovaig (upper, lower and what is just Milovaig – although could be called middle). I still haven’t completely worked out which is which, or when exactly each one becomes the other. That’s Skye all over…lowers are physically higher than uppers, middles don’t seem to have “middle” names, and house numbers don’t even always run in the same direction! Not that anyone puts a number on their door to give you a clue anyway…

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The roads are broken and potholed on much of Skye and the damage done on my first trip, with a stone chip to my windscreen, had expanded under the heat of the car to a two foot crack across the bottom of my windscreen. Not to worry, its not in the line of sight and it can be replaced, at the end of winter, when the chance of repeating the process lessens a little. Be warned, there are stones flying on Skye right now…oh, and take your wellies, the burns are in spate and walking boots are useless.

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The wonder of winter on Skye is the ever changing light. You can watch unimaginable combinations of colours and see the light pick out contours you cannot normally see. Contours that unless you frequently walk the hills, the mountains, the glens, and the steep sea cliffs you might not appreciate even by looking at the map.

In winter the air clears, and as it bites into your flesh, you can see for miles; to the neighbouring island of Harris, with its mountains clad in fresh white coats of snow, and the lower hills of the long island chain of the Uists. From there, it is ocean until you reach the coast of the USA. The Atlantic, stretches across this part of the planet and brings you weather into the North and Western straths of Skye that creates a microclimate that can be radically different from the rest of the island. Although, I would add, that I did take thermals…

It can be much, much, windier, but it can also be quite a bit warmer than even ten miles to the east or the mainland of Western Scotland. It is also, frequently wetter, and wet was a constant companion on every day of the trip. But it also brought with in the light, the wonderful soft, pastels and deep infused colours.

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Walking down to the pier in the morning you could watch the sun rise and the light play across the landscape, ever changing the colours of the heather clad hills, the rocks of the cliffs, and the clouds dancing above. No two mornings, in fact no two moments, were ever the same. You couldn’t just the potential of a day from looking out the window, as it would change in a heart beat or just a few miles.

As the light constantly changed, it was a landscape photographers delight and nightmare in one gift. You have to watch and wait, but not too long or you will miss the moment, you have to prepare but no so long you get cold or soaked, you have to accept the cold, the wind, the rain, and the mud. But the rewards for doing so are worth the moments of discomfort (and the laundry).

Whatever you wear it will not be enough – the rain will find the way around the neck of that waterproof, the burns will come atop your boots, the wind will bite into your hands, nose, and without a decent your ears.

I stayed from the 30th until the morning of the 4th, experienced a wonderful New Year’s eve and took off out to photograph aspects of Skye on all of the first three days of 2018.

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A little bit of irony

I got to see some entertaining and amusing sights, spent the 2nd of January in a largely closed Portree with only a bookshop and the Co-op open for company.

I got to see the light poke it’s slender fingers through the sky to mock the ocean by Neist Point, and to return to the Fairy Glen (near Uig) and try, once again, to capture the wonders of the landscape with only a short day and a limited amount of light.

ST0RM__0BS0151Because of the high side to the glen the sun disappears right behind it a good hour before it goes from the rest of the sky. It plunges you into gloom before you can barely find your best spots. You have to be ready, for the moments of light will not last long, and the land is camouflaged in colour, one conical hill against another, so that although it is quite marvellous it is very hard to do it justice.

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It is very popular with visitors, at all times of the year, and you either wait for (sometimes) hours for them to all remove themselves from your shot, or just use them in your images to convey the sense of scale and go with the flow.

The Fairy Glen has been the stuff of legend for millennia, and whilst the workings within are more than likely those of man and woman, it is hard not to see why and how the place got its name.

Could I fall in love with Skye all over again? Maybe.

Maybe like any long term relationship there are moments where you question what you are doing together before you reach into your hearts and find the things that hold you together are stronger than the things that are pulling you apart.

2018 got off to a wonderful start, for many reasons. Long may the passions continue, the senses be stirred, and may my love affair with Skye be have been rekindled once again.

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Getting lost out West – or how to photograph something not intended, and getting a better picture for it.

I started writing this from the next paragraph, thinking it started off with getting a bit lost on the walk but actually it all started going wrong the day before we left home. You see, I had it in mind to photograph a glen near to Inverness but couldn’t get hold of the campsite. Having left messages, I had pretty much abandoned the idea of the trip when, after lunch, I stumbled across a website featuring some cabin like chalets out by Ullapool. A phone call later and I have never packed the car so quick. So, you see, it didn’t start with the walk and getting lost at all I have now realised, but anyway, that’s how I’m starting or second starting this post.

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It all started with a walk, just following the way marked signs until there were…well, no signs. How odd, I said, Patches didn’t care either way, a walk is a walk, is a new experience of new smells, and new things to pee up.

We kept going, going, and going, up slowly, slowly up, always up. There had to be a sign here at some point, perhaps when we next needed to turn? Then, nearly at the end of the track there was a view of Beinn Dhearg: Rising out up out of the misty distance, it’s head almost in the clouds. Quite unexpected but appreciated, from a photographic point of view, even it it meant we had of course gone the wrong way.

Definitely not the way marked Green path for a few short miles in a circle back to the car park. We must have missed the turn…

We had of course. We retraced our steps, something that confuses Patches no end because walks should not feature the same bits twice in his book. From the other side, I spotted the one foot high sign behind the two foot high tree! The little trees obviously weren’t there when it was put up. Back tracking we had found our way back onto the Green route and around the circuit we had originally intended. But, if we hadn’t got a little lost then we wouldn’t have had the view…

Patches should have pee’d up the “missing” sign for good measure but he didn’t.

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The second day was wetter. A drive further north was on the table, if no other reason that something to do to scout out potential images for another, later, visit. This would take us past Ardvreck Castle, and I have already photographed this ruin from several angles, so I had to find something new if I was to make the most of the few minutes break in the rain.

Opposite the castle is a burn, or stream if you prefer the English. It runs into Loch Assynt under the road bridge and a small older bridge. As it had rained heavily during the night making the stream move at a good pace, and the result of this was a series of small waterfalls as it crashed down a small gully from the hill above. The waterfall was my original intention, but it was difficult to get into a position where I could get all the cascades cleanly, without the trees cutting across most of the view.

I love that these trees are still here, as this is what it would have looked like, with many more of them of course, when the castle was in use. Frustrated at not having a clean shot, I turned around, and making my way back to the car, the light was simply fantastic. But I was walking towards the sun, into direct sunlight, with a low sun that would be full in view. But, although it meant shooting directly into the sun with my ultra-wide angle I simply couldn’t resist, if I could find the exact right spot…

And there, a moment or two later, it was presented before me; the view I wanted. The castle from a new angle, the light being magical, the mists lifting from the rains, the wet autumn leaves of the twisted ancient tree. Everything I wanted, in a moment, and all because I turned around, took the rule book, and threw it out the window.

Two mishaps, or unintentional opportunities – resulting in two good shots. Would my luck run to a third? They say things run in threes, but normally those are bad things. My bad luck things seemed to be turning into good luck things so anything could happen.

The weather had started to clear, the sun had came out, the clouds were mostly lost, and it was time to call it a day. Let’s head back to the accommodation, I can have a cup of tea, check the forecast and plan the next move. Patches could have a sleep, as is befitting of a little old man that he is.

Returning to the cabin, I couldn’t believe my luck again! The isle had created its own weather system and it was hugging just the top of the mountain. Isle Martin presented itself with a little crown of cloud, and the yacht bobbed gently in the windswept sea. Daisies still flowered on the foreshore, in spite of it being late October, and so the three elements of the best of images, foreground, mid-ground, and background all presented interest that would stand in it’s own right. I was, in heaven.

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And so was Patches, with lots of stinky seaweed to explore (although thankfully not roll in) and more things to pee up.

I’m not a fan of ‘chocolate box’ photography and I had hoped for some more interesting skies later, but I was still thinking the best of the day maybe was over. I couldn’t repeat this luck forever.

The night was wet and windy. We hankered down in the cabin, me with a glass of wine and the large screen TV, and both very glad not to be stuck in the usual tent.

The third morning dawned yet wetter still. I pottered. I drank tea. Then suddenly the wind dropped completely. There was a moment, just a moment, to run out the door and take some shots of the loch again. The midges were out. It’s October I decried! Midges should not be out in late October! I got two bites to the left cheek, and one on the other left cheek, if you know what I mean…

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The clouds broke up and I hoped the day might improve. I wandered about for a short time waiting for the clouds to lift, which they didn’t, but the calmness of the early morning make the flections worthy of an image. Patches explored, as usual. The world must be a sensory overload to a dog sometimes.

I often wonder if he thinks we move house a lot or if he knows the difference between holiday and home.

Back inside again, really just moments later, watching the now steel grey of the loch being pounded by raindrops the size of the small arms fire. It didn’t look good and I only had two full days. Hours later it hadn’t change, and there I was wasting one of my previous days sitting watching rain out of a cabin window! As the rain eased slightly, at least for what would be a few precious dry moments, it became enough to get into the car without getting soaked. I decided we should scout for future locations.

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Patches isn’t really good at scouting. He just sleeps on the back seat and whines when he wants a pee, but we drove north, chasing the pockets of sunlight against the ruggedness of the mountains. The wind increased again, and the rain lashed it down against the car windscreen. I felt that all was lost for the day, and after around 50miles we turned back. Suddenly, on the return leg of the, so far fruitless drive, the sun broke through in just one spot against the imposing sky and the steel grey lochs. It lasted merely seconds and I was very, very, lucky to be right near somewhere to stop and park, just at that single moment. Just as the sun hit the centre spot in the cleft of the mountains. That really doesn’t normally happen, honest. Any landscape photographer will tell you about the hours of waiting for the light to move, or even just to appear.

It was a four day trip that could have resulted in very little by way of images, except that for everything that seemed to be going wrong actually made it so very right. Getting off the Green track onto the mountain track presented me with a view of a mountain that would otherwise have remained unseen, in light that was tricky, but also “to die for”. Ignoring all the rules and shooting into the light gave me an image of the burn, the castle, and of the weather itself, that I would otherwise have never captured. Nearly slipping on my backside presented me with an angle and the best photo. Going back early thinking the shoot was over gave me a view of Isle Martin and the shoreline, with the added attraction of the perfect yacht, and the perfect cloud. Trying to ignore the midges and the bad weather gave me a shot of the loch in harmony with the elements.

And, driving around for five hours in the pouring rain paid off with one moment of glory, and a right place, right time moment that will stay with me forever.

At the end of the third day I had gone the wrong way again and found myself driving back alongside Loch Assynt, again, from Lochinver having decided (my memory failing me on the nightmare of the road) to detour to Drumbeg because a sign said viewpoint.

If anyone tells you the road to Applecross is a nightmare, then tell them to try the B869 from the Kylesku and Unapool end going towards Drumbeg and then to Lochinver.

Having survived the road, I stopped by the end of Loch Assynt nearest to Lochinver and revisited the fairly famous strand of trees. It was looking a little dilapidated compared to previous images I have taken in the area and as I stepped out the car into a large, and unavoidable, puddle I thought it too late to change into wellington boots. I rounded the end of the parking area and squelched my way down the slope. Now sinking slowly but surely into the mire my right foot was truly soaked and the left was rapidly attempting to copy it.

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I grabbed a few images as it started to rain again.

Jumping back into the car, which had steamed up in my absence thanks to Patches snoring gently from the back, it was heater on, half on my feet and half on the windscreen, and a short and pleasent drive back to the accommodation. It was time for tea and to pack up a bit, ready for the longer drive home tomorrow.

The final day, the drive home, I had envisaged going an different way and hoping for more sights of lochs and mountains but instead was treated to miles of endless peat bog, undulating but fairly featureless, on a single track road with no parking, only passing, places. It rained, then it stopped, then it clouded, then the light was fantastic for a few moments, before it clouded over and it rained again. I was missing the best light by being in a fairly boring landscape, with nowhere to stop even if I did see view worth an attempted shot.

My luck had to run out somewhere, and I guess day four was going to be it. A quiet drive home, followed by a lot of washing, and a feeling I wasn’t going to have anything really worthy of the trip…

It is so hard to see what you get from the screen on the back of the camera, and even when you think  the shot was good you can often be sadly disappointed.

As I opened the files on the computer, the magic happened again, and I realised that not playing by the rules, being wrong, or being lost, of being unintentional, the trip had given me images I couldn’t have planned but only dreamed of.

Photography is about light, sometimes you get it, sometimes, more times, you don’t. Sometimes though, you do. 🙂

And sometimes, getting lost out West and photographing things you didn’t intend to result in photos that are all the better for it.

Patches and I stayed here

Why I abandoned mirrorless cameras and returned to a Nikon DSLR

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

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

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

I also wanted consistent f2.8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I am going back to big and heavy.

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

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

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

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

…welcome home.

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

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

My osteopath won’t like it….

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But I do.

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

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

Dead Fridges, Sinks, and Drawers

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It always amazes me what people just jump over fences and where they think nobody is looking. It saddens me also.

All of these appliances were dumped in what appears to be a building of potentially historical significance, and right next door to a family holiday park. They were clearly visible to anyone walking to and from the site to the beach via the side pathway, which also gives very popular views of the lighthouse.

 

Billingham F-Stop series – f2.8, first impressions

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f2.8 (L) in Khaki Fibrenyte/Chocolate leather, Hadley Digital (R) in Khaki canvas/Tan leather.

The Billingham F-Stop range is one of those quiet little back burners that hasn’t really been appreciated as it sits in the shadow of the renowned Hadley range. But it shouldn’t, because it’s actually, I think from my initial impressions, a better bag.

IMG_0454Let me explain…

To the left there you will see my Billingham Hadley Pro that I had a love/hate relationship with. I loved the waterproofing, the style, the robustness, the look, but it was always, in my view, dimensionally ‘wrong’.

IMG_0456It was so deep that you lost your mirrorless in it and ended up with things stacked on top one another, but it was so shallow front to back that you couldn’t use it very easily for a DSLR, and certainly not one with a grip. It was trying to fit everything and ended up fitting nothing as well as it might.

I bought the Hadley Pro to replace the Hadley Small, which was actually a better overall size (not so tall, not so wide), but it has the same depth issue.

These bags are Billingham’s biggest sellers, so people do love them, and I can see why. The removable interior to create a great waterproof messenger bag is simply brilliant, although I never removed mine.

The Hadley Pro is W350mm x D120mm x H280mm, but that D is tapered so you only get 120mm/4.75″ in the centre. It weighs in at 1.01kg or 2.23lbs, has two front dump pockets and one zipped rear pocket.

I was very surprised when the Digital turned up having put on a little tubbiness around it’s middle. I was also delighted.

The Hadley Digital, which I reviewed yesterday, is W210mm x D130mm x H210mm and the internal depth measurements are most telling D100mm for the Digital compared with 80mm for the Hadley Pro. As I said, the smaller bag actually has more depth and because it’s across the whole width of the bag, that makes it far more useful. Especially for anything bigger than a very small DSLR, or bigger than an Olympus OM-D/PEN-F sized mirrorless camera system.

My almost favourite bag, possibly of all time, was really the Hadley Small, which comes in at W290mm x D120mm x H220mm, 0.70kg/1.54lbs. Although it is quite a bit less in the width, the fact it also isn’t as tall made it, for me, much better with a mirrorless kit as I wasn’t stacking so much up. The Hadley Small and the Hadley Pro are exactly the same depth at their biggest (in the middle). The difference in weight is partly down to the size and partly down to the inclusion of the reinforced top handle on the Pro, which is missing from the Small.

Now, lots of people don’t mind their bag bowing out in the middle to accommodate their camera bodies, I know this because, as I said, the Hadley range is Billinghams’ biggest seller and the Pro is the daddy of them all and Billingham’s best seller of all.

The thing was, I could never get comfortable with it. Which is what lead me to look for something that was essentially a Hadley Small, but with more front to back depth. I also wanted the ability to take an iPad with me again (Digital isn’t big enough and doesn’t have a pocket for it), plus personal items such as my phone and purse, and have all round all season protection for my gear. I carry my camera with me, everywhere, everyday. You never know when you’ll get that once in a lifetime shot.

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So, meet the much ignored F-Stop. This example is the f2.8 (the f4 was evidently smaller but, quickly, discontinued, and the f1.4, which is still available, is a bit bigger).

The f2.8 dimensions are W300 x D150 x H240 (all in millimetres and external measurements). The internals are W270 x D120 x H190.

Compare that to the Hadley Small – external W290 x D120 x H220, internal W260 x D80 x H190. Internally, the f2.8 has 10mm extra width, which is neither hear nor there, but 30mm extra depth, which makes a huge difference to what bodies I can put inside and in what positions, and internally the height is exactly the same.

Compare it to the Hadley Pro – external W350 x D120 x H280, internal W340 x D80 x H230. I have less width, but I have again 30cm more depth, and I lose a bit on height, which I don’t actually need, unless I have a 70-200/2.8 to worry about. If I did want to carry the 70-200/2.8 plus more lenses I would need a bigger bag than either range anyway.

The f1.4 is even closer to the Hadley Pro – external W360 x D150 x H240, internal W310 x D120 x H190. I’d be losing a little height but I’d be gaining a whole 40mm of internal depth front to back and it goes right the way across. It’s boxy, but it’s good.

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I get the same flap to cover the gear so that it is protected from all sides. And one big dump pocket which I find more useful that the two side by side pockets of the Hadley range.
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iPad pocket, which will take a 9.5″ iPad pro (or Air), with Apples keyboard cover attached, just.

Both the Hadley Pro and the F-Stops have a rear zip compartment (not shown).

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The F-stop shares the fittings of the 7-series, including the tripod strap mounts.

I still get quality brass fittings, although the straps can only be replaced by Billingham at their factor as they are not detachable by the user, unlike the Hadley range. I also get slightly less positions by not having the buckles, although to be honest I never changed mine.

The holes in the leather fittings are to attach 5/8″ tripod straps, which is another useful feature associated with the larger 7-series bags, which also share the same non-user replaceable straps. The Hadley range shares its fittings with the 5-series.

It comes with three inserts, the thick padded base and two dividers. One which folds over and one which isn’t quite full height and doesn’t fold.

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With the supplied dividers

These both velcro into place.

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Supplied dividers and base

Personally, I didn’t get on with the dividers, and although they do the job I have whipped these out to replace them, for now, with ones borrowed from my Lowepro Whistler 350AW backpack.

I love Lowepro’s idea of making dividers also pockets. It gives you extra padded safe storage for those little things, likes cards and batteries, which move about and get damaged if left loose in the pockets.

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Pocket dividers, or whatever Lowepro call them

I can move them back into the Whistler whenever I need to but they not only give me another storage space within the bag, but as they are much softer allow the Billingham to be less boxy. I can now press the Billingham more with my hip which make it nicer to carrier and more conforming to body shapes.

I don’t see why we can’t bastardise our bags with the best of each system, and they almost all come with velcro so it’s actually very easy. Ok, it might not look as cool but who is looking inside your bag as a style comment? Only you should be in it, and only your ease of use really matters.

At the moment, this is not really a review but an initial impression, as it only arrived yesterday and I have as yet only tried loading the bag with a number of configurations. The true test will come after several months of use and I will update this post with that review in due course (probably around the end of November/early December time).

Will this bag become the new favourite of all time Billingham and depose the Hadley Small? Watch this space…

 

 

 

 

Moray Coast Trail – Hopeman to Covesea

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The Moray Coast Trail, or Moray Coastal Trail (not even the council can decide what it’s called) stretches from Cullen in the east to Findhorn towards the west, along the coast of the Moray Firth.

Officially, it’s 50 miles but there are some arguments about that…

…anyway, over the past few months we, as in Patches and I, have been tackling it in nice bite sized sections at the weekends. Patches is a mature gentlemen, with a touch of arthritis, and so those bite sized chunks range from five to around nine miles. This is a bit of a misnomer though, as we walk each section as a there-and-back, so we might only cover 2.5miles of the trail, but we do it twice, in both directions seeing it from both views.

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Some sections are easier to walk than others, as it shares the route with sections of cycle trails and on disused railways, so sometimes a nice wide flat path is provided and sometimes you are on the “walkers path” and therefore going around the cliffs (and up and down thin tracks being scratched by scratchy shrub).

I had been looking forward to yesterdays section very much, because the map has the words ‘caves’ printed on it all the way. It did not disappoint, although the scratches from the scratchy bushes on the very enclosed sections might take a few days to heal.

All along the route there are coves and bays, some sand and some pebble. Some are easy to get to, and some are definitely not.

The whole route gives excellent views across the firth to the coast on the other side, depending on the weather of course, and you can often see dolphins, seals, and a large variety of birdlife.

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Not marked on the map is the old Coastguard lookout station, which you get to see from quite some distance when walking west to east, but then it pops up over the gorse and undulating cliff top at you if on the route east to west.

It is a shame that you can’t go in it, or that it hasn’t been co-opted into a bothy like the one on Skye. I image the view from the balcony at the top would be quite something.

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The route does indeed take you past a number of sandstone caves and rock formations, as promised on the map. These ones (above) are not far from the active quarry and are reasonably accessible, although two of the three paths down are much steeper than the west most one and great care is needed.

Popular with photographers, mainly due to the natural arch you can just see at the bottom of the photo (above), and the array of weather worn large round rocks which form a stunning collection of geological complexity (below), it is unlikely you’ll be alone here for very long.

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At weekends, it is possible to park near to the quarry entrance and just visit these caves, although this is certainly not recommended on weekdays when the lorries are going in and out, and care should be taken not to block access at ANY time.

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The quarry produces some very large pieces of sandstone, and whilst it may be a bit of a blight on the landscape, it does facilitate the degree of weekend parking which is helpful, as well as offering much needed employment.

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Towards the Covesea end of the walk, which can be extended easily to Lossiemouth if desired, there is the Sculptors Cave. This feature is clearly marked on the OS maps in the serif type usually reserved for ancient monuments so there is a deeply historical context, obviously. It isn’t actually possible to see Sculptors Cave from the walk, as you’re actually walking over it, but nearby natural arches and caves that you can see give you a teaser of what it could be like.

Luckily, the wonderful Canmore website can shed more light on this;

‘Finds from the Sculptor’s Cave dating from the Bronze Age to the 4th century AD, and including Iron Age pottery, are in the Elgin Museum.’

‘The most striking feature of the cave is the (formerly) substantial assemblage of human remains that was revealed in both programmes of excavation’

‘The possibility may be considered that there were two periods of deposition….the deposition of the remains of children, with some emphasis on the placing of heads at the entrance, and….the remains of several decapitated individuals. Concern with the removal, curation and display of human heads is a persistent trait across prehistoric Europe…’
(edited, removing technical references for ease of reading, by the photographer)

This exciting site certainly warrants a further expedition to photography the carvings at a later date.

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The caves and natural arches extend along the seaward side of the cliff and also under where the photographer is standing.

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The coast of the Moray Firth is still able to enchant and interest, even after more than 13 years of living beside it. The geology itself is varied and interesting, and the human history of the coast is just as fascinating.

The eastern side of Scotland is often overlooked by the rush to the west coast and the isles, and whilst this keeps it from being unpleasantly crowded, it is a disservice to what is a very worthwhile destination. The weather of Moray is far more stable, and frequently warmer and drier than the west, although the residents will still bemoan the lack of a “decent summer”. It also suffers considerably less from the issue of the Highland midge than it’s opposing neighbours.

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Although the walk was only around 5-6 miles in length, ignoring some exploratory detours, Patches certainly enjoyed the outing as much as I did.

Update Sunday 8th October: attempted today to get down to the Sculptures Cave from the cliff above. It was difficult is distinguish the right path and I tried finding a way down and back to it from different points. In the end I found what seems the most logical path but I was only brave enough to tackle the first section and was slipping in the mud from the last few days of rain. As I peered over the precipice and contemplated the leap across the missing rock section onto the second path I am afraid that I bottled it. The caves remain unexplored until I can tackle them from the bottom having walked there from the beach at the far Lossiemouth end. For this, I would want to be there as the tide was going out rather than after it had turned and was heading back in, as being cut off is a very serious proposition. Another time…

 

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.

End of the affair – how I fell out of love with the Isle of Skye

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Sunset on the first evening, following a day of rain and storms.

After 20 years, my love affair with Skye has, I think, now ended. It is not the island, and it is not the people, it is the crowds.

I arrived in pouring rain, which isn’t unusual for anything on the western most side of Scotland, and the next day, with it forecast to be in for the whole day, took a trip into Portree for supplies.

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A short circular walk from Portree take you to views of Dun Caan, past the memorials for the Nicolson/McNeacail clan, but sadly it is cut short at this point due to a landslip.

Skye has become a victim of its own success, attracting over 60,000 visitors for the August bank holiday weekend alone (according to a resident).  The roads, mainly single track with passing places, just cannot cope. Even if the visitors knew how to drive on them…and too many don’t. Without the docking cruise ships, even with just the coaches, the line for the only ladies toilets stretched for over 60 people and part way around the town. When finally you could get a seat, as it were, the result was barely tolerable, and a long way from pleasant. But at least Portree has toilets…

The third day, my second full day on the island, and looking slightly at slightly more promising weather, I set off the most northerly point on Skye – Rubha Hunish on the Trotternish peninsula. After getting my boots nearly sucked off my feet in the boggy terrain following the lines of walkers to ever nook and cranny, I had wished for my wellies! I also wished it hadn’t rained for days beforehand, and quite a few less people.

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The Lookout; ex-Coastguard station and now Mountain Bothy Association open shelter.
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Looking out The Lookout towards the Outer Hebrides in the rain.
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Now that Trotternish is blessed with 4G (albeit intermittent and only recent acquisition), I wonder if the landline phone still works?
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Rubha Hunish points towards the Uists, with views also of the bottom of the Isle of Harris, and on a clear day, potentially, the Isle of Lewis.
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The fireplace that isn’t, and the interesting book collection (a bible, a German philosopher, and a guidebook to Fungi to mention just three).

The walk is an out and back, which means retracing your steps and trying to keep your boots about you when all about you are losing theirs…

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The Northern end of the Trotternish ridge.

…takes you past a cleared village, and on to meet a sheep sank at the “main” road.

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Sheep station, or sank, by the start/end of the walk.
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The main road from the carpark, and the reminder of a time now gone when red phone boxes were needed, and a passing place would illicit a courteous wave.

Just along the road a bit further is the Skye Museum of Island Life – a collection of Blackhouses showing the islands way of life through the ages.

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Blackhouse
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The reconstruction within this Blackhouse shows how up to ten people, including children, would share a space with box beds. It was quiet, warm, and felt comforting and safe, as the wind was howling again from the north, blowing rain into the face when outside.
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A 150 year old loom which was still being used up until the mid 1950s – Skye residents are still multifaceted with many doing more than one job to provide and income. This is true of most island residents throughout the Scottish isles.
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Replica shop in another Blackhouse.

I was particularly moved by a series of letters from Johnnie dating back to WWI and on display in the final Blackhouse. There was one about him shipping out with his chums to France, and another thanking his sister for her parcel, which had reached him at the front. He said she could put in some tinned Salmon, or Sardines, next time if she felt inclined.

Sadly, Johnnie would never receive the second parcel as the third piece of paper on show is the notification from Kitchener’s war office. Johnnie had been Killed in Action just three days after writing his letter to his sister.

………………………

The next day, the weather forecast was terrible so I decided to explore nearby Camas Mor. Just a few minutes drive from the accommodation it was a lovely bay, small harbour, and was well served by a parking area with bins, two bench seat and tables, and a magnificent view. I would have been perfect it here had been a toilet, but as the residents of Skye will tell you, the Council is not inclined to providing (m)any facilities.

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Camas Mor
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Looking towards the Hebrides again, this time from near Camas Mor.

It proved to actually be the best weather day of the entire trip! Sadly, by the time I realised it wasn’t going to get better it was too late.

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The Lily at Camas Mor.

The day was not wasted, although the birds were nowhere to be seen, and the hoped for wildlife of seals, dolphins, and even whales, never appeared either: Just three Cormorants and a few assorted gulls to show for the hours of patient watching, plus some photos too, of course.

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Hand of God?

Driving back a slightly different route, following the grid pattern of small roads, took me past a derelict church which still had some sections of plaster and painted murals covering the remains of the walls.

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Lovaig Bay and the “Coral” Beaches – made from small shells and calcified seaweed.

The final day of the trip and I was desperate for a walk which wouldn’t be a quagmire, after the days of continual rain. I headed, along with a hundred or more other people (and I don’t exaggerate here) towards Dunvegan. Passing by the castle I hoped the beaches would be quieter and on arriving there was a space or two in the car park. By the time I had walked the 4 miles to the far end of the bay and back I was nearly boxed in by some bad parking to the front, a tree to the rear, and unable to open the passenger door for the inconsiderate parking of the neighbour. Almost every car in the place had a ’17’ plate and a sticker on the fuel filler cap reminding the driver what to fill it up with. According to the residents I spoke to, almost every car you see between 7am and 7pm is a hire car. Or a camper van…

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Waves at Lovaig Bay.

My dog ran into the waves, got soaked right over, and came out grinning (Staffordshire Bull Terriers not only have the ability to ‘smile’ but also seem to have very good comic timing and a well judged sense of humour. My first one used to go and sit on the lino’ in the hall when he wanted to fart because it made it much louder…no kidding).

When I got my current squeeze, he was terrified of everything and that including the sea. Now, four years later, he can’t wait to get his paws wet. Watching his shear joy and exuberance of running into the waves made the whole trip, and even the bad weather worth it, but I am sure there were less people in Edinburgh during the Fringe than there was on the Isle of Skye last week.

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The End

Clash in the Braes – Joe Strummers Rebel’s Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

A birding walk: Cummingston – Burghead – Hopeman (with a Nikon P900)

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The forecast was for sunny spells, not sunny spells and showers. Arriving at Cummingston (marked Car Park on the map above) it was properly raining, but ten minutes sat in the car watching it bouncing off the bonnet and it had stopped. Twenty minutes into the walk towards Burghead and the sun was trying to come out.

This was to be a funny walk in some ways, because instead of going out and back, we were going from the middle to one end, then back to the middle, then off to the other end. The reason for this? Well, this was where I knew the car parking, toilets, and access to the old disused railway line actually was. So, that was where we started. The accidental benefit if this is that we also knew there was a toilet there which would provide another opportunity thus mid-way, and the walk could also then be cut short if the weather deteriorated. Thankfully, it didn’t.

I had been to this spot before, for a quick recce of the route, but the weather wasn’t conducive to the shots I wanted at the time, so I planned to return and combine a bird walk, with a dog walk, with a photo walk. I would be experimenting with the Nikon P900 as a documentary camera at the same time. As much as I would like a proper long lens for my Fuji XT-2, I simply don’t want to pay £1,500 for a lens that I also don’t really want to have to carry. I think I am getting to point where I have realised that I take far more photos, and far better photos, if I am not bogged down with loads of stuff. The Nikon P900 takes you from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to whopping 2000mm, in one camera. It also features GPS to record your shots (hence the map up above, and also enables you to capture birds and wildlife, as well as landscapes and scenes, all in one camera. Or so it promises on the advertising…

I had bought it for birding, but I wanted to see if it could do more than that and if I would still be happy with the result.

As this was also a bird walk, I had taken my binoculars with me and within moments of getting onto the main path, with a view of the shore, I had spotted the first ID confusion bird of the day.

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A long way out it would have been impossible to get a clear photograph of it without the P900, and so I was happy with this somewhat uninteresting shot as a means of later identifying the eclipse male eider duck. I couldn’t see as much detail with my excellent Minox 8x binoculars as I could later see, at home, on my screen with the images from the camera. The bird would have remained unidentified without this shot, and so already I had found a reason to be pleased I took the P900.

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I had started to envision using this camera for documentary photography for my Detritus project, so I wanted to see how well it would cope at the wider end. I was very happy with the camera for bird photography, but would it, with its tiny sensor, still give me the details I require for a more ambitious project? I have had images from it accepted to stock agencies, but there is little room for additional cropping, which means you have to really concentrate on getting the composition right in-camera, because you can’t really change it and still maintain a large enough file, with sufficient data, later on.

The Fuji XT-2 gives me files in the 15MP+ range to the 6MP+ range of the P900, as a rough guideline. Agencies need a minimum of 5MP, so there isn’t a lot to play with from the Nikon. This means making firm decisions at the time of shooting, like we did with film to an extent, and I actually like having to work like this. It makes you really take care and consideration when shooting if the room for error is so very small.

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My Detritus project, so far shot exclusively on the Fuji XT-2, is about the impact of man’s waste on the natural environment of Scotland and the detrimental effect it has on the scenery and as a threat to the tourism industry. I will be travelling around some of the most scenic and best loved locations and showing them, warts and all, rather than polishing them up to the ideal images we know and love of Scotland. This project will require a lot of travel and a lot of walking to remote locations, and thus if I can find a way to reduce what I need to carry to a bare minimum whilst ensuring that I won’t then regret it or be limited on arrival at a location by this, there will be a lot of incentives and benefits to carrying just the Nikon.

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Another part of this walk today was to capture some images of the birds found around the Moray Coast, and for that the Nikon P900 would be perfect. It enables you to get very close shots of the birds without disturbing them, and impacting on their behaviour. I am very interested in birds responses to their environment rather than just portraits, and being able to observe without impacting on that is very important for accurate documentary photography. Birds are easily disturbed and this effects their behaviour, so being able to photograph them without this is very important to the birds but also to me.

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The coastline around Moray is spectacular in many places, allowing you to enjoy the geology, geography, and still often feel like you are alone, even on a busy summer weekend. The weather was still clearing and the view across the whole of the Firth to the far north coast breathtaking. But it wasn’t long before we came across some more detritus of us humans and our working of the north sea.

I was very pleased to be able to document this at the same time as being able to get the wildlife shots, whilst still carrying only one light weight camera. In practice and operating it was living up to my hopes, although I do hate that the buttons and dials move far too easily, especially compared to the Fuji, which are stiffer and lockable. This is only a problem if you don’t double check before you fire off the shutter – and sometimes, when birds and wildlife are involved you don’t have time to check and so it can be annoying.

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We had set off from the car park in the direction of Burghead and just as we got to St. Aethan’s (or Aidan’s) Well, I was delighted to spot two Stonechat. This one was obliging for a couple of shots only.

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It is claimed that the water from the well has healing powers, but whatever it has or hasn’t got going for it, Patches wasn’t touching it.

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Having declined a drink from the bowl provided at the well, he was more than happy to have some good old tap water from the Sigg bottle along with me instead.

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As we approached Burghead I was very happy to find this Linnet on the rocks. It would appear they have developed a way of opening the small limpets that cling to the rocks, or otherwise they are getting something in the rocks that makes it worth the effort.

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I like to photograph bird behaviour, even if I don’t fully understand at the time what the bird might be doing. Although I much prefer to shoot stills than moving images, I do like my subjects to have motion and to be engaged in doing something.

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As we came into Burghead the rocks change and the famous carbuncle homes into view…

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It provides a lot of work, of course, but it isn’t half ugly to look at. Coming at it from any angle you can’t fail to spot it, but from this angle it dominated the whole of the village. Reaching the edge of the village it was time to turn around and walk back past Cummingston and head for Hopeman.

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I was pleased again to see another three Linnets as these were first I had seen this year and in my first in this area.

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I was delighted to be able to photograph the small gatherings of wading birds on the shore from the path, again without disturbing them, and delighted to find Redshanks, Turnstones, and even a Knot amongst the larger Oystercatchers.

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Having successfully documented the detritus, and the wider scene, it felt natural to also be able to capture images of the wildlife and the birds in particular. The sun was shining through the clouds now and picking out the plumage of the birds made for some lovely images, especially with the surf breaking in the background thus confirming the location whilst enabling a relative close-up of the birds.

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We went down into Hopeman and found our way through the houses to the harbour, where a small but interesting gallery has the added advantage of serving tea, coffee, ice creams, biscuits, and cans of cold pop. Hopeman also has easily accessible and very nice toilets, at the harbour, which enabled us to refuel and refresh before heading back to Cummingston again, and the picking up the car.

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The path follows the old railway and so it’s easy and accessible for all abilities, although some sections are small short gravelled rather than tarmac, and getting up and down to the car parks can be a bit interesting at some points. The route is part of the Moray Coastal Trail which runs all the way to Inverness, and is a designated cycle route as well as a path for walking and recreation. There are facilities at various points along its length and it also goes past or through some campsite for those wishing to tackle its full length. More details can be found here.

ST0RM-0313The side of the path host a number of interesting plants and an abundance of insects. The bees were making light work of these flowers, which is good to see given how much trouble bees are in, nationally and globally.

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As we reached Cummingston of the third and final time, I took a route off from the main path to examine the caves and sea stacks, which attract climbers as much as they do the wildlife.

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Again, it wasn’t hard to find more detritus from man’s long love affair with the sea. I do not wish to think about the trouble that this rope could cause to our wildlife, and tails of entangled whales, seals, and even dolphins are sadly becoming more and more common around the globe.

The walk was extremely pleasant an undertaking, and whilst it is not long in distance there is plenty to see all the way along the route. With birdwatching, dog walking, photography, and just general exercise and interest all combined, and the tea stop of course, we were out for much of the day. I would certainly take the route again, and with Patches snoring gently in my office, I am also now delighted with the results form the Nikon and look forward to using it again for more than just birding.