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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lupins at Spey Bay – a test of the Fujifilm XF WR 16-55 f2.8 lens clarity and close-up abilities, and the XT-2’s colour rendition

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 53mm
Today I was out at Spey Bay, one of my local haunts, and the opportunity to shoot these marvellous delicate flowers presented itself. I hadn’t gone out with the idea of shooting these flowers, or anything with sky in it as we shall see.

Although I had shot all my images in Fine+Raw, the excellent rendition of the in-camera JPEG set on Velvia meant that when I returned to the office I didn’t have to do a thing with the image aside from cropping.

All the images were shot at ISO200, and thankfully, although it was overcast it was also very bright which meant I could get a decent depth of field to work in close-up, whilst retaining a fast enough shutter speed to get over the constant subject movement.

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 53mm (again)
I am a fan of cropping square for two reasons; Instagram, and that when the image is then printed and framed it can go on any wall space. Landscape pictures really require a landscape wall, and portrait photos either need hanging in pair, or a portrait wall (or they look too small) – square goes anywhere. Which is why I loved my ‘blad and its 6×6 film format I guess.

Shooting blue or lilac blue flowers (such as Lupins and Bluebells) is notoriously difficult, and I have had considerable trouble with getting this colour correct when I was shooting with Nikon cameras and lenses, and even more so shooting with Sigma lenses. For some reason that a tech’head might be able to explain, this is hardest colour for digital cameras to render correctly, or so my experience tells me. With Fujifilm’s Velvia setting there wasn’t any issue at all.

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 55mm
I specifically wanted to get the pebble beach into shot as the colours worked so well together, but I did expect to have to work on the raw tile and perhaps tweak this a little. The colours straight from camera, using the Velvia setting, in-camera Jpegs were fine for for every shot shown here, and I doubt I could do much better with the raw files.

I was equally impressed with the contextual shots, although I would probably go to the raw file for this one if I was printing it for the shot directly below. The sky has lost the colour accuracy slightly, and this wasn’t helped by me as I didn’t take the ND graduated filters with me. I wasn’t intending on shooting anything with sky in, but to be shooting details in black and white for my backgrounds and frames series of stock images.

With the raw file, which I have, I would be able to balance the sky more, but I wanted to show you the in-camera jpeg version to see the one time I did feel it either needed to post process. It was down to me not using a grad and not the camera though.

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In-camera JPEG as shoot – 1/125sec, f11, 16-55mm @ 16mm
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RAW with added LR grad to the sky and no other adjustments
As you can see, the image from the raw file is better in terms of the sky, although I think the Lupins loose a little of their oomph. This is a quick edit, and I am sure I can get them to look exactly as the great colours of the in-camera jpeg file.

The only time I have issues with the in-camera jpeg files from the XT-2 is when presented with situations just like this. Here below you can again compare the in-camera jpeg, which I wouldn’t manipulate as it would degrade the image, and the processed raw file which I am happy to work with as it won’t degrade.

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In-camera JPEG – 1/250sec, f11, 16-55mm @ 28mm
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Raw file edited in LR (grad added, plus a little lightening of the shadows) 
Although I prefer the balance now, I do feel that the heavier sky detracts from the Lupins which are the main subject. Even thought this is a contextual photograph i want the intent of the image and the main subject to still be the Lupins so  although I have restored more of the sky, for balance, I would now probably crop more sky out to then restore the intent of the image.

This of course changes the composition and the shape of the final image:

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Processed raw image cropped for emphasis on the Lupines
The images show that Fujifilm XT-2 does a fabulous job of the colours and the lens does an even more impressive job of helping to retain the colours accurately with its coatings, and being so absolutely pin sharp all the way through that every aspect of every image is presented as I envisaged.

Given that the 16-55mm is not a macro lens I was very impressed with how the flowers came out in the close-up photos, and the amount of detail this lens captures blows me away every time. I have had a lot of cameras and really good expensive lenses over the years, but this lens is way up there with the very, very, best of them. It isn’t cheap, but it is worth every penny and is my main lens.

 

 

 

 

Shooting with Fujifilm ACROS, or any other monochromatic setting for that matter.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Nikon D200 18-70 (2008)

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.

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Fuji X-Pro 1, XF35mm/1.4
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Fuji X-Pro 1, XF35mm/1.4

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.

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3 Days of Skye – Day 3

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

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

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

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The Cuillin

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

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

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The Cuillin from Caiplach Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skye Bridge, Kyle of Lochalsh, and the Lochalsh Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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Eilean Donan Castle

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

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

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

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Gairich and Sgurr Moor from above Loch Quoich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1

Day 2 (Part 1)

Day 2 (Part 2)

 

3 Days of Skye – Day 2 (part 2)

You join me again after breakfast.

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).

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Map with kind permission from isleofskye.com

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.

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Totternish Ridge at Flodingarry

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?

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Croft hut near Flodingarry, Isle of Skye

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.

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Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls

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.

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Duntelm Castle, or what’s left of it

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.

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Traditional Croft houses reconstructed at the Museum of Island Life (closed during my visit)

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.

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Sunset from above Uig,looking West to Waternish

*A single life had been reported at the time of writing.

Join me for the final day of my trip HERE

3 Days of Skye – Day 2 (part 1)

Day 2 (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That did not bode well.

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

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

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

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

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Before sunrise – Totternish ridge near the Quiraing

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

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

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

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

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The moment of sunrise

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

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

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Trotternish, moments after the sunrise

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

I turned around to face the mighty Quiraing…

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The Quiraing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejoin me after breakfast by clicking here

3 Days of Skye – Day 1

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.

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Liathach, meaning ‘the Grey One’

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.

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Torridon village nestles against the shores of Upper Loch Torridon

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!

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Five Sisters of Kintail – Winter Whites

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.

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Map courtesy of IsleofSkye.com

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.

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Fairy Glen, Uig, Isle of Skye

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.

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Fairy Glen, Uig, Isle of Skye and the road through it

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.

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Uig harbour from my hotel window.

To read about Day 2, click HERE