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Book Review – “The Sony a7 and a7R; The Unofficial Quintessential Guide”

Suggested

I miss the Magic Lantern Series! I know that’s not a ringing endorsement from out of the blocks; but just sayin‘. There was something reassuring about their consistent format, with a lot of information about the particular camera and its features and just enough “how to” photography information without it being a “how to” book. In the nearly 40 years that I have been buying and using photographic gear, I have yet to see a “manual” shipped with the item that was detailed and understandable. So, third party writers had to step in, work with the gear, speak with manufacturers and users, and then give us that detailed, clear “manual” explanation. The best in the business were – in my opinion – the Magic Lantern Series. As print books have largely gone away, so have these useful books :-( .  The closest thing to this series that I have been able to find for the Sony α7 series cameras is “The Sony α7 and α7R,”  published by rockynook publishers and co-written by authors Brian Matsumoto and Carol Roullard.

I miss the Magic Lantern Series

There are still some print books out there that purport and attempt to do this job. Unfortunately, in my view, they are not as consistent, or as good. They tend to be a hodgepodge. They are often written by different authors and therefore reflect their style of writing and perhaps more than they should, sometimes their particular prejudices based on their own photography.

There are two “series” out there today that seem ubiquitous and I had hopes, would be something like the Magic Lantern Guides. But alas, they were not. The “From Snapshots to Great Shots” series is one. I have purchased a couple of them and they are frankly, disappointing – at least as they relate to the reason I bought them (see above). Their coverage of the equipment is superficial, and they all have the same, beginner “how to” stuff in every chapter. Many, if not most of us who buy the more sophisticated cameras, like the Sony α7 series, really do not need the “how to” stuff that is in every one of these books. The other series is the series by David Busch. There is no doubt that David is a knowledgeable, talented and accomplished photographer. But I can pick up any one of his series and 80% of content is virtually identical. It is “how to” photography (usually beginning to intermediate) stuff. The books are several hundred pages and $40 dollars. I just want the 20% about the camera. That is what the title and marketing says after all. Both of these series seem to me to be a set script in which the editors just go in and put in the 20% part about the cameras. And then, altogether too often, that coverage is superficial and nothing more than what is found in the not so good online pdf files available from the manufacturer.  Did I mention that I miss the Magic Lantern Series? :-)

I want to see a book that is about the camera – like the titles imply

I really don’t mean to be hypercritical (maybe just critical :-) ). I appreciate that the writers of all these series are talented, qualified photographers, and are trying, in many cases, to make a living. I am not saying there is not a place out there for these combination “how to” / “missing manual” books. There are certainly many shooters out there who have not read generic “how to” books and who have the camera and could benefit from the books. But if it is a “how to book,” tell it is a “how to “book and if it’s marketed as a book about the particular camera, then I want to see a book that is mainly about the camera – like the titles imply.

As best I can tell, at the time of writing this, there are 5 published books dedicated to the Sony α7 series. One is in German (Sony Alpha 7/7R) and one is in Japanese (Sony Alfa 7R & Alfa 7 Super Book). Until I brush up on those two languages, I won’t find much utility in them. I would be interested in comments from any readers out there who are conversant in these languages. The other 3 are the David Busch Guide, the Snapshots to Great Shots book, and the book reviewed here, published by rockynook photographic publishers.

The authors are pretty consistent throughout, using a logical “how you would shoot this” approach to how the A7/A7r settings and options handle the situation, and often some unique options that make shooting with the A7 even better or easier

I have several of the rockynook books. I like them. I like the fact that they dedicate their publications to photography. There are some really good volumes of work in the rockynook library and I heartily endorse them. I gave this book my “suggested” rating. I did pick up some good stuff from the book and it will remain on my bookshelves. And, at the moment it is the only one among the English books that comes close to my criteria above. While I would not call it indispensable, it is a nice addition to my library.

The book delivers what its title implies, mostly. It is much more like the old Magic Lantern Guides and is about the α7 series of cameras, how they work, and what they can produce. It is clear from the book that they have both spent significant time shooting with both the α7 and α7R cameras. The authors definitely bring their own shooting style to the book. The book is laid out consistently, with each chapter having an introduction and a “recommendations” section. The authors are pretty consistent throughout, using a logical “how you would shoot this” approach to how the α7/α7R settings and options handle the situation, and often some unique options that make shooting with the α7 even better or easier.

But the authors do tie the general photography concept approach to the specific settings, menus and options on the camera

Chapter 1, “Getting Started,” discusses the camera and its layout and highlights the differences between the α7 and the α7r models. It also gives you enough information about how digital cameras work, in general, so if you were contemplating purchasing the α7, you can see the relative benefits and costs. There are nice photos and diagrams of the camera from front, back, and top, to show the control layout in the introductory section, and then a “walk” through the menu layout in Chapter 1.

If you were looking at the book either in a bookstore or online, based on the Chapter titles, you might be tempted to dismiss the book as just another “how to” book in the guise of a book about a specific model. But the authors do tie the general photography concept approach to the specific settings, menus and options on the camera.

So, even though Chapter 2 is titled, “Basics of Digital Photography,” the subheadings are all camera-specific and relate to the concepts. Chapters on using the camera in its different shooting modes (automatic, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual) follow, along with specific examples of where the authors (an perhaps you) would use different features. Finally, there are chapters on additional customization, downloadable apps, flash, and lens (both Sony mount lenses, and adapted “legacy” lenses).  I thought the chapter on using flash was particularly good, in that it described the various Sony – branded flash units that work with the camera, and under what circumstances a user might purchase the different units.  I appreciate that the book is a “Sony” book.  However, I would like to have heard (and perhaps the authors just haven’t explored this) about third party branded flash units that might work with the camera.

Of course, a lot of the “features” are in-camera processing that can only be done if the user chooses to shoot in the camera’s jpg mode. They generally do not work if you choose to capture images in Sony’s native raw format, and most do not work if you choose the dual option of raw + jpeg. So, for you jpeg shooters, there is a lot of in-depth information.

have some personal “nits” about the book. A few specific examples:

In a couple of places in the text, the authors discuss mounting the camera on a tripod and being required to turn Sony’s OSS (“Optical Steady Shot”) off and to turn it back on when you take the camera off the tripod. But there is no place in the book that discusses OSS, how it works, and when and when not to use it. The Sony 70-200 f4 zoom lens for this camera has a button on the lens to turn OSS on and off. Are we to turn it off in both places or just one of them? To address the issue obliquely, but not directly, seem like a significant omission.

At times the recommendations sections almost imply that the authors’ recommendations are the only way to do things. In one point in the book, for example, they discuss the AF/MF button on the back of the camera. I have used an old John Gerlach technique for many years, programming the AF/MF button to activate AF and turning of AF activation on the shutter button. When you have the camera mounted on a tripod and have framed up a still shot and have focused on the point you want in sharpest focus, the last thing you want is for the lens to “hunt” when you activate the shutter button. This prevents that. The authors do not note this, but the α7/α7r can be programmed to do this. Instead, the authors note that it can be programmed so that it toggles between AF and MF. This is useful in instances like the microscopic images that the author shoots. I would like to have seen them drill down into these options a bit and mention the other potentially useful settings of these buttons.

There are times when I think the rockynook editing process could be better. There are occasions in the book where the authors use a slightly inconsistent approach which to a casual reader, could be confusing. In one place they may speak in terms of minimum and maximum aperture values, and in another they refer to the “smallest value” of the aperture ring, but mean the largest aperture.

“Raw” does not stand for anything other than raw! As in “uncooked”

And, there is on “nails on the blackboard,” pet peeve for me. I know, it is ridiculously nit-picky, but it annoys me. Throughout the text whenever the authors refer to raw capture, they use “RAW” in capital letters. Another prominent rockynook author, in his book, went to some trouble to point out that this is incorrect. When we see TIFF, or JPEG (or JPG), it is because they stand for a phrase (TIFF = Tagged Image File Format, and JPEG = “Joint Photographic Experts Group”). “Raw” does not stand for anything other than raw! As in “uncooked.” So it annoys me when people capitalize it. Why do I continue to bitch about it? Because this is my blog and because I CAN :-).  But funny thing ….. (“Pot, meet kettle”) ….. I have been consistently referring to the subject camera model as the “A7r” (capital “A” and lower case “R”).  As I was again pitching a fit about the capitalization of “raw,” I noted that the authors here (correctly) use the denomination a7R (just the reverse of my incorrect usage).  The “a” of course, is really the greek “alpha” symbol, and this exercise also forced me to figure out how to reproduce it here.  But I now stand corrected (and I have that going for me, and that’s a good thing :-) ).

The detailed, multi-page appendices section at the back of the book is a very nice feature with nicely explained, detailed menu settings and commands. It will be a valuable troubleshooting aid and quick reference.

The book delivers what it implies …. mostly

On balance, this is a good book and a good addition to the α7/α7R owner’s arsenal. At this stage, it is the only book I can suggest, as it is the only one that is really, in my view, an “about the α7 series book.” I have not read the David Busch book, and I will probably at least peruse it when I finally see it in a bookstore. I already own a couple of his books, so unless there is a lot of hidden secrets, I probably won’t buy it. But if I do, for the sake of fairness and consistency, I’ll review it.

Suggested

Review of Bruce Barnbaum’s “The Art of Photography”

Recommended

I haven’t reviewed a book here for a while. In the past, most of my reviews have been of “how to” or “equipment-oriented” books. Over the years, I have read a number of more inspirational, or “art-oriented” books, but this is the first one I have attempted to review here.

The Art of Photography is published by Rockynook™ publishers, and they have some pretty good, often provocative books for photographers. These days, I (like many purchasers, I am sure) purchase the majority of my books from online sources like Amazon. Photography Books are often the exception, because I like to browse them before I purchase. However, this book was indeed purchased from Amazon. I am not sure what about the promotional material or other reviews drew me to it, but I was looking for some “new inspiration” at the time. I purchased the book a couple years back, now, and read it slowly.

Photographic Fundamentals

The book is laid out nicely and logically, and Bruce gives us a good, solid basic underpinning for photographic composition and exposure. He begins with the fundamentally important stuff, in my view: Composition, light and color. There are 5 full chapters covering visualization, communication, composition, light and color as they relate to photographic art. Barnbaum imparts his considerable experience and knowledge about the art and science of these areas in a very readable format.

Sometimes a Photographer must decide whether to shoot – or not even bother to shoot a scene

He also brings his personal philosophy to bear in his coverage. In the introduction, for example, he emphasizes the importance of the photographer’s personal response to a photographic scene, even suggesting that there are many times when we should not even attempt to capture a scene. So many of us are prone to being “in the moment,” shooting everything in front of our lens (especially since with the advent of digital, we no longer are concerned about film and development costs). This is particularly true when we have spent significant dollars and time to visit a particular destination and may never be there again. I am not espousing not capturing “record” images of places you visit. But artistic shooting requires some thought about subject, place, composition and – frankly – whether it is even worthwhile to trip the shutter. It is, of course, going to depend on the circumstances. Barnbaum is primarily a landscape photographer, and that is a subject which – in my view – requires more circumspection.

I spent a week last fall with the very talented professional landscape photographer, James Moore, in the field. One of the things I brought back from that trip was a new application of the old phrase: “less is more.” I may have made a record in terms of the fewest shutter actuations of any photographic trip (including back in the film days); while at the same time, bringing back the highest percentage of “keeper” images!   That phenomena is directly related to the influence Jim’s thinking has had on me.  So reading Bruce’s comment in the introduction hit a chord for me. I think the upshot of his commentary is that for a photograph to meaningful, the photographer has to “say” something worthwhile with his image.

The chapters on composition include the topics of color, line, shape and form, and balance. Barnbaum artfully explains how to use the tools a photographer has, including light, exposure, direction, color, perspective, lens length, depth of field, cropping, and shutter speed, among other things, to present the image, taking these fundamental items into consideration. At the same time, he cautions against being limited by “rules.”

This is exactly the type of inspirational/informational book I was looking for. The first 6 chapters are, in my view, worth the proverbial price of admission.

The zone system may seem to be anachronistic

Film-Based Materials

Much of his treatment of exposure, however, is from a traditional standpoint. He spends a fair amount of time (2 full chapters) discussing film and the “zone system” of exposure. For many new photographers, and for most of us “older” shooters who have migrated 100% to digital, this may seem to be anachronistic. But although the way it is applied to and with technology has changed, the basic theory of exposure has really not changed over the years. So while it may not seem to apply to modern digital exposure techniques, the basic understanding of the zone system assists us in understanding exposure as it is used with our digital capture today.

Likewise, he spends a full chapter (45 pages) on wet darkroom techniques. Again, this material may be seen to be a bit “dated,” but I have always been of a view that historical context can give us a better understanding (and appreciation for) current-day techniques. It is not unusual, for example, for some of the Photoshop processes and tools to be modeled after and indeed named after a historical film-based process. And, while I believe them to be a decided minority, there are still photographers shooting with film and using wet darkrooms.

In fairness, Barnbaum brings it together in Chapter 11, “The Digital Zone System,” with 30 pages of in-depth and useful coverage of digital exposure and how it relates to the traditional concept. Again, I think knowing how the zone system was developed and works makes understanding the magic (and the limitations) of digital sensor technology just a bit more clear. Barnbaum gives useful detail here on how a digital sensor is made, how it captures images, and importantly, how to use and read the histogram, as a tool for exposure.  See my blog,  “Expose right to Expose Correctly“.   He also explains raw capture. I do have a small nit to pick with Barnbaum (or perhaps more correctly, his editor) here, though. Like so many writers, he mistakenly refers to raw capture using all capital letters (“RAW”). This is a convention for abbreviations of multiple word phrases. “Raw” does not stand for anything—other than just that: “raw” (as in uncooked). It should be correctly referred to as “raw.” Like I said, a nit, but nonetheless, a pet peeve of mine.  :-)

“Raw” is not be capitalized. It does not stand for anything other than just that: raw (as in uncooked)

Chapter 11 also has some very good coverage of blending raw captures to extend dynamic range (one of the wonders of digital capture and digital post-processing, in my view). Thus, as a technical chapter for digital photographers, this one is really very good!

I think the above materials have great educational and historical significance to the photographer interested in understanding the “craft” of photography. Having said that, I do have to confess that I resorted to a more “skimming” approach to the chapters on the zone system and wet darkroom prints. That is to say, I read them, but not with the intensity, or as in-depth as I read the remaining portions of the book.

Presentation

There is a brief, but very informative chapter on print presentation, which is still timely today. I purchased my dry mount press about the same time I was reading this book, so his commentary on the subject was very useful for me.

Art and Inspiration

The remaining chapters of the book deal with art, personal philosophy and approach, artistic integrity, and Barnbaum’s approach to some popular misconceptions which he refers to as “photographic myths.” The first 5 “myths,” perhaps unfortunately, relate back to his zone system/negative film discussion. But again, they certainly can be related to photography of all kinds. The remaining “myths,” (6-8) which are really 4 more (8 is actually 2 myths), are universal and deal with “rules” and an unreasonable adherence to them. Good stuff.

A favorite Chapter of mine (probably because I agree wholeheartedly J ), though, is Barnbaum’s coverage of “artistic integrity” in Chapter 14. He hits the nail on the head here, with his thoughtful (and thought-provoking) coverage of this sometimes controversial (though I am usually at a loss as to why it is so controversial) topic. I love the passage (important enough that it is an out quote in the text): “When photographers get away from thinking ‘This is what I can do‘ and get to “This is what I can say,’ photography becomes a more mature interpretive medium.”

Barnbaum also makes the point that as art, photography is more about perception than about reality: “One of the strengths of photography has been its perceived realism.

Finally, his final 2 chapters on creativity give the reader much food for thought and introspection about his or her own photographic endeavor. I was looking, in Barnbaum’s book, for some inspiration in my continuing quest to take my own photography to the “next level.” I was satisfied that it did that for me and will continue to do so. I recommend this book.

Recommended

O’Brien Wine Club Tour of Ireland; The Final Day

Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Photographically, this may be a bit anti-climax. We spent the day first with a “tour” by our bus driver of the city, including a drive up into Phoenix Park, which may be the largest park in Europe, replete with an obelisk monument, the Dublin Zoo, and the American Ambassador’s residence. There are also numerous deer and other wildlife around the park (we had driven through here on our first day in Dublin on their “hop on – hop off” bus). We drove down into the city center (much of which we had also already seen). We did learn some interesting Dublin history.

Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The “Heineken” sign has a funny back-story. At one time this building belonged to Guinness. After it was sold, Heineken bought the rights (they do not own the building or have or have any other connection to it) to the wall, and the sign.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

St. Patrick’s Cathedral,
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

There are many “St. Patrick’s” cathedrals throughout the world. None are prettier than the Dublin version, particularly the grounds. This is a shot from our bus window and doesn’t really do it justice.

Pub Near Jameson Distillery, Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Pub Near Jameson Distillery, Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The River Liffey flows from west to east through the city, bisecting it roughly north and south. Much of what we saw, including Te Temple Bar area, Dublin Castle, Trinity College and St. Patrick’s cathedral, are south of the river. North of the river there is a significant amount of commerce, though, including the old complex of the Jameson Whiskey Distillery (which has long since moved its operations).

Sculpture, Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Sculpture, Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Our first “stop” was after lunch at the famed “Book of Kells” at Trinity College in the center of the city. Trinity College is an impressive, beautiful campus. The “Book of Kells” exhibit, however, is a hopelessly tourist and commercial setup that was – to me underwhelming in a significant degree. Except for the final part, where we walked into the actual library stacks. That iss impressive!

Book of Kells; Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Book of Kells; Trinity College;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Our last stop for the day was, of course, the Guinness Storehouse. The Heuston Train Station is just caddy-corner from the complex and is where our bus from Dublin Airport dropped us for our first night’s stay about a block from there at the Ashling Hotel.

Heuston Train Station; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Heuston Train Station;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The Guinness tour is, of course, very commercial – but still a fascinating experience. One interesting fact that I don’t recall being given by the Guinness tour guide, was that (according to our bus driver – how much of his knowledge was “local wisdom” is not crystal clear) the Guinness “stout” beer was a mistake. The barley was burned during the roasting process. Mistake or not, somebody decided to finish up the batch and (although I don’t particularly care for it), the rest is – as they say – “history.”

Guinness Storehouse Headquarters;  Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Guinness Storehouse Headquarters;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

There is not much interesting that you can photograph inside the commercial area of the storehouse, as it is full of hundreds of tourists, they move you through very fast, and the light is not great. I concentrated on a few small details.

Guinness Storehouse; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Guinness Storehouse;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Guinness Storehouse; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Guinness Storehouse;
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

We will remember this trip all of our lives. We made some great new friends, got to see some old friends, and made some memories of an amazing and fascinating part of the world. The Irish people are every bit as friendly fun as their reputation, and we will most certainly be going back there in the not too distant future!

Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

O’Brien Wine Club Tour of Ireland; Day 8

Clontarf Castle Gatehouse; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Clontarf Castle Gatehouse; Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The afternoon of the previous day was time for me to re-charge a bit. A brief nap, and then we walked to the downtown suburban area of Clontarf, a port for Dublin. We joined a few of the many “O’briens” on the trip at a restaurant for a nice dinner and then walked back to the Hotel.

An old castle, the Clontarf has been made into a magnificent looking hotel. But being a castle, there were limitations to work with. In Europe, we conspicuous consumption type Americans are often surprised by the small size of hotel accommodations. However, in our Ireland experience, all but one – this last one (which was ironically – I am sure – the most expensive of them all) were really quite spacious and comfortable. This one worked, but was by far the “tightest” we had. Still, a pretty cool experience to stay there.

Clontarf, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Clontarf, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Clontarf appears to be a relatively affluent suburban area, and in the mornings, I walked the streets, looking for something of interest to shoot. One of the things we noticed (and it is a matter of common interest – note, for example, the cover of Rick Steves’ Ireland 2014 travel book) – particularly around Dublin, was the brightly colored doors in many of the row house buildings. Much of it is, of course, folklore and what they like to boast about, but Ireland seems to have a pretty strong cultural focus on drinking. We were told that the primary purpose of the different colored doors was so that you could get back to where you live after a lively night in the pubs. Good story – true or not. And even better, they make for wonderful photographic subjects. We found, for the most part, all of Ireland to be proud of the looks of their towns and buildings were well kept and well landscaped.

Colored Doors; Clontarf, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Colored Doors; Clontarf, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Today would be our last bus ride, and our only excursion into Northern Ireland. Again, we had a smaller group, with several electing to stay behind and see what Dublin had to offer. We had been in Dublin for a full day prior to the tour and had stayed near the City Center. We wanted to stay with the tour and especially, to go to Northern Ireland, so we boarded the bus for our final group trip.

Our destination that morning was Armagh, a small town in Northern Ireland just to the southwest of Belfast. Interestingly, as we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, the speed limit signs when from Kilometers to miles, and the currency (we found when we stopped for refreshment) to British pounds. There was also a subtle, but noticeable difference in architecture, particularly of the dwellings, to a less colorful and ornate look (more like U.S. suburban homes might look) – interesting. Most interesting was our driver and week-long guide’s description of trips up there just a few short years back (less than 10) when there was so much violent unrest in Northern Ireland. There were still heavily fortified police stations, and the few policemen we saw still resembled military more than what we are accustomed to seeing for civilian police.

St. Patrick's Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

St. Patrick’s Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The primary purpose for the trip up, however, was to visit the 2 St. Patrick’s Cathedrals: One built before and the other after, The Reformation. The churches were impressive and the differences both remarkable and fascinating. The post reformation church is a huge, ornate and probably very expensive monument. I will leave the reader to his or her own thoughts as to what it was a monument to.

St. Patrick's Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

St. Patrick’s Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The older, Anglican Cathedral was much less ornate and “in-your-face,” but nonetheless a marvel of architecture and art, particularly for the time it was built. From a photographic standpoint, I definitely liked the older church.

St. Patrick's Anglican Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral; Armagh, Northern Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Our ride back to Dublin was along the coast, along the Irish Sea between Ireland and England, and through the Portmarnock Golf Course, back to Clontarf Road and the Clontarf Castle. There were some beautiful roads and we even stopped at a cemetery where one of our members, a fan of the Dublin rock band, Thin Lizzy, searched and found the grave of one of the band founders, I believe, Phil Lynott. Of course the music on the bus, as we entered Clontarf, had to be “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

We arrived back at the motel in time for our one “formal” evening (jackets required) banquet celebrating the O’Brien Clan Society (of which, of course, our gracious host, Bart, is a board member) and the Battle of Clontarf. We had some laughs and some good food that night and then got ready for our final day – all in Dublin, which was to culminate in a visit to – where else? Yup – the Guinness Storehouse. Next: “The O’Brien Wine Club Tour of Ireland – 2014; The Final Day.”

O’Brien Wine Club Tour of Ireland; Day 7

View of Countryside from Bunratty Folk Park; Bunratty, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

View of Countryside from Bunratty Folk Park; Bunratty, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Once again this morning, we had to have our bags on the bus, so I did not go shooting, but had breakfast and boarded the bus with the group, headed (eventually) for Dublin, with a couple of scheduled stops along the way. The first scheduled stop was the Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. But before we headed for Bunratty (ironically, back in the opposite direction from Dublin), we stopped at another Castle which was reputed to have a connection to Brian Boru’, but is now a svelt, private hotel and golf course – Dromoland Castle. Since it was private, and the owners would most likely not take kindly to a tour bus driving in and dumping 40 tourists around, our stop was quick. There was a photo of all of the O’Briens on the trip taken, and we then re-boarded, headed for Bunratty. I did manage an image or two.

Dromoland Castle; County Clare, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dromoland Castle; County Clare, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Bunratty Castle and Folk Park looked (and was) like a “commercial tourist” park.  But it was still fun and pretty interesting. I have said before, that if I were planning my own trip to Ireland, I would not have used the travel company used here, and I would have opted for some less touristy and more picturesque places, and/or more time in some of the Irish cities (Limerick is a place I would have spent more time). But as photographer that is how my “travel” mind works. For others, this may have been just perfect – and we were fortunate to be with this group, with everything planned and done for us – so not complaining; just “observing.” :-)  In the same light, however, we also were scheduled to stop for a couple hours at an outlet mall on the way to Dublin. Really? (Just saying). After a threatened mutiny, our poor bus driver drove us straight to Dublin, dropped the “shoppers” off in City Center, and took the rest of us on to our hotel, The Clontarf Castle, for some much needed downtime.

Bunratty Castle; Bunratty, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Bunratty Castle; Bunratty, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The current Bunratty castle, built around 1425, is actually the 4th castle in Bunratty, and was eventually overtaken by the O’Brien clan. The interior of this 15th century stone structure was fascinating, and after a short introduction by a tour guide, we were pretty much given the run of the castle. Climbing the spiral staircases was interesting. The castles all have narrow, counter-clockwise spiral staircases, with the walls tight to the right. As the guide noted, the vast majority of Europeans are right-handed and this made it virtually impossible to draw, or swing a sword. On the other hand, if you were defending, you had a relatively clear shot, and if you were first up the stairs you were probably left handed, and probably beheaded. According to our guide, it is where the saying “heads will roll” (as they did, down the spiral stairs) came from.

Tapestry; Bunratty Castle, Bunratty, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Tapestry; Bunratty Castle, Bunratty, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

There was also a tapestry that was over 800 years old, hanging in the great room. It looked like it might have been 20 years old. It is pretty amazing that some of the things in the castle have lasted as long as they have. Of course, today, they are temperature controlled, and shielded as much as possible from light (and human contact). I was also amazed at the detail in the wood work. Art was obviously a huge part of the life of at least the noble men living in the castle living quarters.

Table; Bunratty Castle, Bunratty, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Table; Bunratty Castle, Bunratty, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Detail, Table, Buratty Castle Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Detail, Table, Buratty Castle
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The view from the top was also impressive. As a photographer, I always enjoy the ability to get up high and get the “birds-eye” view of a place. Here, I shot the river, as it might have looked to a castle lookout, defending from a Viking invasion.

Ralty River from Bunratty Castle; Bunratty, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Ralty River from Bunratty Castle; Bunratty, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

A walk around the grounds of this place was equally interesting. It is supposed to reflect living in Ireland in the early 19th century. There were peasant huts and a small village street with a post-office, apothecary, some nicer “homes” and some more rural, as well. It is difficult to know how much of it is real from years past and how much is “Disney.” There was clearly an old farmhouse (Hazelbrook House) that was once a real feature of the village—but was actually reconstructed there in 2001. And in the village, there were also a number of “tourist” souvenier stores mixed in with the mock-ups. Still, I would recommend this site as a worthwhile visit. The Hazelbrook brothers were apparently famous for ice cream making and there was some very interesting looking machinery in the barns area of the house near a nice walled garden.

Machinery; Bunratty Castle; Bunratty, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Machinery; Bunratty Castle; Bunratty, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Due to time constraints, and lack of pre-planning, I missed the real shot of this castle, which is from across the stone bridge which crosses the small Ralty Rive, a tributary of the River Shannon, with the bridge leading into the castle scene. Maybe next trip? Of course, the views of the countryside were spectacular – and Green! I probably took away one of my 5 favorite images of the trip from the folk park—a shot of the ancient Ardcroney Church. This church was actually moved, stone by stone, from County Tipperary, to be a feature of the folk park. But it is beautiful; both in setting and in architecture.

Church, Bunratty Folk Park; Bunratty, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Church, Bunratty Folk Park; Bunratty, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Next, we were off to Dublin, for the final “leg” of the trip, with a 3 night stay in the Clontarf Castle, in the Dublin suburb of Clontarf.

Clontarf Castle Hotel; Dublin, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Clontarf Castle Hotel; Dublin, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

 

O’Brien Wine Club Tour of Ireland; Day 6

The River Shannon; Limerick, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

The River Shannon; Limerick, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

New town; new morning; new photo subjects. Limerick is a town which appeared slightly larger, and slightly more traditional “city” than Galway. It was less designed for the tourist/college student and more of a “working” city. Nonetheless there is a lot to do there and it seems to me to be a city worth visiting and planning to spend a couple days. Of course, given the nature of our trip, I only had mornings and evenings there, so the idea was to make the best of it, for what I could find within walking distance of the Strand.

Limerick, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Limerick, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Like many older cities, Limerick is divided by a river; in this case the River Shannon. The Strand Hotel was on the northwestern bank of the river, and just across the bridge to the south, was the main “downtown” part of the city. We walked down there the first night and found a nice pub on the city canal, which connects the River Shannon from loop to loop, as it circles north of the city and back down again to the east. This morning, I walked back down for a daytime view, and found this image of a white walking bridge, crossing the canal.LIMERICK IRELAND 04222014000009 There appear to be a series of drops on the River Shannon, which, though they do not amount to real waterfalls, look like they would create serious havoc on boats. Hence, there are also some locks on the river. One is near the canal and the main auto bridge that crosses the river from the Strand over to the downtown. I think water, and particularly rivers, always make for photographic interest in and around cities.

King John's Castle; Limerick, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

King John’s Castle; Limerick, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

From the distance (you can see it in the opening image off the river), you can see the tower of a castle. As I followed the river, I learned that what I was seeing was King John’s Castle. A number of our group remained in Limerick this day, and reported afterward that it is a very interesting and fun visit. I was there only during the early morning hours, and not much activity was happening (something I actually appreciate, when trying to find early light shots).

Limerick, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Limerick, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

You never know what unusual, but perhaps serendipitous subjects may await you around the next corner. As I walked toward the castle, I came upon this pink, childrens’ bicycle up against the green fence and it drew my eye.

Rock of Cashel; Tipperary, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Rock of Cashel; Tipperary, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The previous day took its toll on some of our number. I headed back to the Strand to make the deadline for our tour for the day. This morning, we had about ½ a group on the bus. A number of our folks, it appeared, were ready for a break from long bus rides and just wanted some “r&r” in Limerick. From their various accounts, it sounds like they thoroughly enjoyed what the city had to offer. But we were off for our planned trip to The Rock of Cashel and Kilkenny Castle.

Rock of Cashel; Tipperary, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Rock of Cashel; Tipperary, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The Rock of Cashel is a grouping of medieval buildings on a very high vantage point, in the renowned, Tipperary, Ireland. It is almost impossible for an American not to start humming and/or blurt out that hackneyed phrase, “it’s a long way to Tipperary.” Our driver and guide informed us that the “Tipperary” of song, is a bar/brothel in Piccadilly, London and the song was reputedly sung by soldiers longing for “a pint” and the “sweetest” girl they knew. Wikipedia has a slightly different version of the story, noting it was a music hall song and one of the writers may well have hailed from Tipperary. Whichever story you want to believe, it was undoubtedly became a popular marching song for British Soldiers during WWI. As far as the “long way,” what I can tell you is that this week, on the bus, it seemed like a long way to everywhere we went!

Rock of Cashel; Tipperary, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Rock of Cashel; Tipperary, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

But I digress….. The Rock of Cashel is where Brian Boru’ was crowned “High King” of Ireland – and apparently, where his descendants continued to rule for more than a century following his death at the Battle of Clontart. From a photographer’s perspective, the ruins are spectacular and photogenic, and the views of the Irish countryside, as far as the eye can see, are green and as illustrative of “Ireland” as I could imagine.

Kilkenny Castle; Kilkenny, Ireland Copyright  2014  Andy Richards

Kilkenny Castle; Kilkenny, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Following our morning at The Rock of Cashel, we headed further east, to Kilkenny. Importantly to me, Kilkenny is the site of the Smithwick’s Brewery (my beer of choice in Ireland). So, for lunch, before our visit to the castle, we found it obligatory to salute Kilkenny and Smithwick’s with a pint.

Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

After lunch, we all met in front of the castle, where entered for a tour. The tour was mildly interesting, as were the interior rooms of the castle. But our visit to Bunratty Castle, the next day, would prove a much more interesting interior castle tour. The exterior, however, was another story. In my pre-trip envisioning, I thought surely I would bring home a “wall-hanger” of Kylemore Abbey, or some similar castle we saw along the way. The image that actually found its way to my office wall is the above image, with the steps leading up. I like the one with the fountain, also, but haven’t printed it.

Kilkenny, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Kilkenny, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

And the shot from the castle roof, with the Smithwick’s brewery in the distance, just may be my favorite shot of the day.  After the Kilkenny Castle tour, we headed back for the Strand, and our last night in Limerick, where we re-joined some other group members, compared stories, and sampled several new Irish Whiskeys, before turning in for the night.

Obrien Wine Club Tour of Ireland; Day 5

Cliffs of Moher Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Cliffs of Moher
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

We had an earlier than usual departure this day, and had to have our luggage on the bus before breakfast, so I didn’t walk the town. This was a much-anticipated day for me. In my pre-trip research, the two destinations that had the most “pull” for me were Kylemore Abbey (as the images and narrative demonstrated, I didn’t do it justice, and would love to re-visit some day during early or late light, with time and a tripod); and The Cliffs of Moher, our first stop destination for the morning. So, we bid farewell to Galway where we had enjoyed three fun nights, and headed for our next destination.

Cliffs of Moher Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Cliffs of Moher
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The Cliffs of Moher are located in County Clare, in an area known as The Burren. I was immediately tempted to try to compare this with the word, “barren” (actually of French origin), the we often use in our language. Burren actually means big rock, or rocky expanse. Either way, the Burren seems to have a lot of “barren” landscape. But it is also dotted with green, and of course, borders some spectacular seacoast. One of Ireland’s more famous golf courses – LaHinch – plays through the Burren, and we drove through it on our way to the Cliffs.

Cliffs of Moher Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Cliffs of Moher
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The Cliffs of Moher are on the Western Atlantic Coast of Ireland, and at their highest point, rise more than 700 feet about the sea level. The drop is spectacular—and lethal. We noticed a Coast Guard ship patrolling far below, as we stood on the cliffs. Our driver told us that it is a relatively common way for citizens of Ireland (particularly older ones) to commit suicide, and apparently the rangers at the national site and the Coast Guard maintain a constant vigil for “jumpers.”

Cliffs of Moher Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Cliffs of Moher
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

This site is the single most visited by tourists in all of Ireland. It was named after Fort Moher, which once stood at the Southern-most part of the cliffs (Hag’s Head). Today, near the visitor center (which is completely underground and – impressively, does not disturb the landscape) the only structure is O’Brien’s Tower, which was reputedly built by Sir Cornelius O’Brien to impress his girlfriend(s). It was fitting, for an O’Brien tour, but was, unfortunately, closed the day we visited. You can walk along a path for a long distance both North and South of the visitor center. Inexplicably, our tour company allotted only a little over an hour for this entire site! Again, not my trip and not my call, but it was an area I could easily have spent ½ a day at. It was cool, cloudy and windy the day we were there, but relatively dry and clear of fog. I am told it could have just as easily been a wall of rain and fog – so perhaps it is difficult to plan for something like this with a large group. We were fortunate to be able to capture some nice images – notwithstanding the grey skies.

LaHinch Golf Links Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

LaHinch Golf Links
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

While we saw neither, apparently it is common 2 see two species of “wildlife” here: Atlantic Puffins, and Surfers. If you travel to Ireland, it is definitely a “must-see” destination, and – weather permitting – and if you have the leeway, allot a full half day to this site.

View from Church in Killaloe Copyright  2014  Andy Richards

View from Church in Killaloe
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The balance of our day was devoted to visiting the main “hometown” of Brian Boru'” — Killaloe.  Here he lived for the longest period as High King of Ireland.  Killaloe was strategic, as a crossing of the River Shannon, above Limerick, where the Vikings were in control.  The palace no longer stands.  In Ballina, we had a short boat ride on the River Shannon (it was cool and rainy, but again, I would have liked to have gone further and longer on the boat).  We then crossed the river and visited the St. Patrick Church, where we had the great opportunity to climb to the top of the bell tower for a view of the town, and a demonstration of the bell ringing by the church’s organist.  The River Shannon divides County Tipperary and County Clare, and the towns of Ballina and Killaloe are separated by a 13 arch bridge across the River.

Bridge between Ballina and Killaloe; from Ballina; Church in the Background Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Bridge between Ballina and Killaloe; from Ballina; Church in the Background
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

After what seemed like an unending day of riding on the bus, with too short stops, we finally headed four our next 2 night destination; the Strand Hotel in Limerick. Limerick turned out to be a nice town to walk around in.  We found a nice pub the first night where I had one of many Smithwicks and finally found some traditional Irish Lamb Stew.

The Strand Hotel Limerick, Ireland Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

The Strand Hotel
Limerick, Ireland
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

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